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'You're not screening for them': Concern that trafficked Irish children are falling through the cracks

The OSCE’s special representative for combating human trafficking said children in foster care or those who came from abusive backgrounds are particularly vulnerable.

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AN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY and human rights organisation has expressed concern that Ireland’s policies on human trafficking are allowing victims to fall through the cracks, including Irish children who are victims of trafficking.  

Speaking to TheJournal.ie Valiant Richey, the OSCE’s special representative for combating trafficking in human beings, said one of the main pieces lacking in Ireland’s response to human trafficking is proactive identification. 

“Lots of kids are in foster care or vulnerable situations, maybe abusive, and they easily get recruited into exploitative situations,” he said. “If you’re not looking for or screening for them it’s going to be hard to find them.”

Human trafficking is the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labour, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others

The OSCE is an organisation of 57 countries focused on security and human rights in particular.  Richey engages with governments to increase attention on the issue of human trafficking as well as policy development, research, data collection and training. 

He said the organisation is particularly focused now on the decline across several countries in prosecutions for human trafficking offences. 

Since 2015 there has been a 42% decline globally in prosecutions of human trafficking. In Europe, prosecutions have fallen by 52%.

“That’s tremendous, it’s not a blip, that’s really taking the foot off the gas,” Richey said. 

“It’s interesting because, by and large, victim identifications have been continuing to increase in databases. The fact that there’s a decline in prosecutions most certainly is not an indication that the problem is going away. That, we know for sure.”

He said he does not believe there has been a decline in knowledge or capacity in these countries and many agencies have conducted training and worked to build awareness and skills among law enforcement in these countries. 

“I think it’s probably a lack of political will or lack of urgency on the issue and associated resources to match that,” he explained. 

It’s exactly the wrong time for countries to take their foot off the gas because the problem is escalating in the way it’s incorporating technology and it’s hard to say we have a grip on that.

Ireland is a microcosm for the problem, he said – in 2016 there were nine convictions, in 2017 there were three and in 2018 the number was zero.

“It went through exactly the same decline happening at a broader level across the region. When I talk to officials here [in Ireland], it just seems that other topics like economic development for example, have been prioritised over this issue, and a little bit of attention has come off it.”

In Ireland the average number of identification of victims per year is between 50 and 120. He said the latest research from the UN indicates the number of officially identified victims represents between 2% and 5% of the actual number of victims.

When it comes to child victims, Richey said the concern with the data for Ireland is that most of the identified victims are from other countries. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Irish victims, it means you’re not screening for them. I don’t think there’s any question that this is happening, the question is ‘how many?’

“We’ve talked to NGOs who have direct contact with people who are in vulnerable situations, including trafficking victims, and they’re reporting this,” he said.

He said children who are already in unstable or marginalised positions are most vulnerable to traffickers. 

“So that’s children who have multiple placements, children who have suffered abuse and run away from home, children who are homeless most certainly, children who have substance abuse or mental health problems, children with a disability,” he said. 

“On the spectrum of exploitation it can include something like a homeless teenager exchanging sex for a place to stay in a non-consensual environment up to traffickers bringing in foreign national teens and taking them around Ireland selling them on websites.”

He said despite low official figures in Ireland, this is “likely occurring”.

Richey said the methods of bringing international victims into Ireland as the same as they have been for many years, but the method of exploitation has evolved.   

“That’s why, for example, people in Ireland are seeing a lot less street prostitution. Most occurs online now,” he said.

“It not only facilitates broader engagement with a bigger marketplace but also allows for different forms of exploitation. A person might be sold online, but there could also be videos or livestreams of them that are also commercialised, so multiple forms of victimisation occur.

“The primary forms in Ireland are trafficking for sex exploitation and for labour exploitation. There are also indications of forced marriage.

“There’s no questions that’s probably happening, but at a lower rate than the other two.”

Vichey said he does believe there is a growing recognition among Irish officials that the response to the problem, has not been adequate. 

“There have been initiatives launched in the last few months that are encouraging, the Minister of Justice coordinated a group to bring cooperation between agencies and a renewed focus on prosecutors talking more with gardaí about how to company this problem. These types of conversations are crucial.”

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie about Richey’s comments, the Department of Justice said Ireland has robust legislative and policy measures in place to address the issue of human trafficking, citing the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 and Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) (Amendment) Act 2013.

“The Second National Action Plan to Prevent and Combat Human Trafficking in Ireland was launched in 2016. Action continues on a whole-of-Government basis, in line with that Plan,” a spokesperson said.

“The action plan involves a victim-centred and human rights based approach with the ultimate aims of preventing human trafficking, ensuring an effective criminal justice response and delivery of supports to victims.”

The department said Ireland is also active at the international level in relation to human trafficking, in particular through cooperation with partners in the European Crime Prevention Network (ECPN) and EUROPOL.

“An Garda Síochána has committed significant resources to the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking. A specialised garda unit, the Human Trafficking Investigation and Co-ordination Unit (HTICU), has been established to coordinate delivery of national strategy.

A number of State bodies provide care and practical support to victims, including the HSE, the Legal Aid Board, the Immigration Service and Tusla. The Department of Justice and Equality also provides funding to several NGOs for their work to provide support to victims of trafficking.

“Action is also being taken to raise public awareness in Ireland and help members of the public identify the signs of human trafficking.”

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