Victims of trafficking are walking around our towns and villages, warns Cork campaigner

Trafficking is a significant problem in this country, a report recently revealed. MARTINA O’DONOGHUE talks to a Cork man involved in a non-profit organisation working to tackle the issue
Victims of trafficking are walking around our towns and villages, warns Cork campaigner

JP O'Sullivan from Cork of MECPATHS marking World Day Against Trafficking earlier this year.  Picture: Aidan Oliver Photography

THIS year, the U.S State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, regarded as the most comprehensive insight into global governmental efforts to combat the issue.

Human trafficking is generally understood to refer to the trade in and exploitation of an individual for another person’s gain. Women, men and children are trafficked for a range of purposes, including forced and exploitative labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, recruitment by criminal gangs, and forced marriage.

For Ireland it was a damning report, with the country ranked on a Tier 2 watch list, the third lowest of four possible rankings. To arrive on this undesirable list, the report explains that “the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions”.

JP O’Sullivan of MECPATHS.
JP O’Sullivan of MECPATHS.

Ireland has been named as one of the two weakest EU states - alongside Romania - and it is the second consecutive year that the country has placed so badly.

To most of us, who admittedly have our heads stuck in the sand when it comes to such matters, the report is shocking. But JP O’Sullivan - who is rather more clued into the topic due to the nature of his job - has seen it coming.

The Cork man, originally from Dromina near Charleville, is the Communications and Networks Manager with MECPATHS, the only non-profit organisation in the Republic of Ireland which raises awareness of the presence of human trafficking activity, specifically the trafficking of children for exploitation. The organisation delivers workshops and training programmes to an increasing number of sectors, such as the hospitality industry, the security trade and universities.

He feels that a lack of training across the board has contributed to our shameful ranking.

“Ireland does have a growing issue around trafficking, but unfortunately people aren’t trained to be able to spot it. Even the guards themselves will say that only a small minority of gardaí are trained on how to identify victims of trafficking and how to investigate. 

"Social workers and the guards are most likely to encounter vulnerable children but when training isn’t there, we’re challenged in the country with the responses we have in place,” he says.

JP is not too impressed with the government’s response to the U.S report either.

“The Minister for Justice did issue a response to it and personally I did think it was quite weak. It blamed Covid for the country’s placement. Covid certainly wasn’t responsible for it. They had a similar ranking 12 months previously when we were just gone into Covid,” he points out.

What happens if we slip further and land in Tier 3?

“It has impacts for all people in the country,” warns JP. 

“Pre-clearance at the airport when going to the states will be removed by the U.S government. There are implications for trade agreements, as the U.S is not allowed trade with anyone on a Tier 3 watch list. So these are the things that I suppose the wider public isn’t aware of. We’ve a history of that in Ireland; it doesn’t really matter until it is in our own back garden. 

"Well, it’s in our own back garden at the moment; people just don’t want to look out the window at it.”

OK, let’s put on our spectacles and look out that window. What should we look out for?

“The most important thing to remember is that victims of trafficking are walking around our own towns, villages and cities. They’re not tied up in back rooms. There are 40.3 million people trapped in modern day slavery in the world today. So just be aware of things that may seem out of the ordinary; people who may seem controlled or coerced or don’t have freedom of movement. In the UK – and it’s reflected in Ireland too – some of the locations where modern day victims of slavery are being identified are car-washes and nail bars. We see a lot of it in Dublin, but it’s not been identified in Cork officially. The person doing the nails isn’t communicating with the customer and someone else is managing or handling the cash at the end. Be alert, be vigilant and if you have any concerns, contact the guards who have a dedicated anti-trafficking unit.”

There are some other mistaken beliefs that JP would like to clear up.

“There’s the misconception that the issue of trafficking is something that happens in cities and that it involves people from outside the country; that it can’t happen to Irish children or adults, but the reality is that it does.

“It’s not a city thing, it’s not a Dublin thing; it’s a nationwide problem. Also, human trafficking is not an immigration issue or a border issue; it’s a human rights issue and it’s an exploitation issue.”

He continues: “During Covid, there was the presumption that there wouldn’t be much movement of people but with trafficking it doesn’t necessarily have to involve moving. It can include the harbouring of someone. Also, when we talk about children being trafficked the movement can be only one or two feet; it doesn’t have to be across a city or town, county or country. It can be from one room to another for the purpose of exploitation. That’s regarded as child trafficking under the international definitions that Ireland has signed up to.”

When the period of Covid is properly assessed, JP predicts studies will show a significant increase in children groomed online. It has, after all, been a time in which parents have pushed children towards electronic devices, not only for home-schooling but also in a bid to get the peace and quiet they need to tackle their own challenges of working from home.

“The FBI would say that at any given point in time, every single minute of the day, there are 750,000 predators waiting online for children to turn on their laptops”, says JP, chillingly.

He goes on to give an example of a recent hook to lure in kids.

“We were approached by one of the global leaders in online recruitment who had spotted adverts for social media influencers; looking for young people in Ireland to promote products and clothing. All the young people would have to do is receive the product, take a picture wearing it, post a picture on social media; they get to keep the product and they get paid. When the company traced the adverts back to the source, they were coming from the same place as images of child exploitation. We stepped in and helped them build a global policy to help staff be able to identify ads like that which were targeting children.”

The training provided by MECPATHS used to be in person, but in light of Covid, the organisation launched its e-learning platform this past summer, which has the potential to reach even more people. The first offering is a Hospitality E-Learning module for hotel management and staff, while there will be additional modules to follow soon for the private security industry, aviation and sea port industries and for social workers. Training has always been free of charge, so one wonders why some professions have been slow to engage with it.

Gabriela Popa - Tulfarris Staff member, Ann Mara, Education Manager, MECPATHS, Ryan Willoughby - Tulfarris Staff member, JP O’Sullivan, Network and Communication Manager, MECPATHS and Lauren Stapleton - Tulfarris Staff member, all marking World Trafficking Day. Picture: Aidan Oliver Photography
Gabriela Popa - Tulfarris Staff member, Ann Mara, Education Manager, MECPATHS, Ryan Willoughby - Tulfarris Staff member, JP O’Sullivan, Network and Communication Manager, MECPATHS and Lauren Stapleton - Tulfarris Staff member, all marking World Trafficking Day. Picture: Aidan Oliver Photography

With marketing and’the brand’ being so important these days, JP theorises that perhaps some industries are reticent in case it suggests there is already an issue on the premises.

He was taken aback a few years ago when a senior member of staff at a particular location said to him, “Trafficking is a bit like bed bugs. We know it’s there but we don’t like to talk about it”.

However, JP warns that such a short-sighted view could ultimately be a costly one.

“In the States, there have been huge lawsuits over the last number of years, taken by victims of trafficking who were children when they were trafficked and came back as adults to say, ‘Actually, I passed through this hotel chain as a victim of trafficking, the staff knew and nothing was done’. They’ve been successful in their lawsuits. That is encouraging people in Ireland to step forward and say, ‘We’ll have the training, it’s preventative, there isn’t necessarily a problem but we’ll take it for safeguarding purposes’.”

It seems the legal system here has been slow to catch up too. Despite it being an issue that has us positioned at Tier 2 status, only this summer did Ireland secure what is believed to be the first conviction for human trafficking in the history of the state, when two women in Co. Westmeath were found guilty of trafficking women from Nigeria into Ireland for the purposes of forced prostitution.

How does Ireland’s response compare with that of our nearest neighbours?

“In the UK the prosecution rate is very high. They have very robust legislation; they have very good investigating teams in the UK.

“Similarly, France and Spain are quite good. Italy is a huge corridor for tracking and the Eastern European countries are still some of the source countries for victims of trafficking”, explains JP.

So how can the Irish government step up and tackle the problem?

“Number one is admitting or recognising there is a problem. The second thing would be training frontline staff on victim identification, and the third is ensuring that the public are aware of their own part to play in responding or reporting issues of trafficking.”

JP, clearly frustrated with the slow pace, says, “The Department of Justice has a Blue Blindfold campaign for anti-human trafficking and the tagline is, ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes To Human Trafficking’, but in Ireland we need to open our eyes before we can actively close them.”

CONTACTS

If you are a victim of trafficking, or you have a suspicion that someone else is, contact An Garda Síochána. In an emergency call 999 / 112.

You can also contact Gardaí at your local Garda station or by freephone 1800 666 111 daily from 9am to 9pm.

Alternatively, you can email your concerns or suspicions to blueblindfold@garda.ie Every contact with An Garda Síochána will be treated in strict confidence.

Also see: mecpaths.comtarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> and sextrafficking.ie (the website of CAHT, Cork Against Human Trafficking)

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