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Debunked: No evidence of children trafficked to Mayo as described in Senator’s tweet

Details of Sharon Keogan’s tweet echo stories about a charity that brought children from Chernobyl to Ireland

A RECENT SOCIAL media post by Senator Sharon Keogan suggested that 100 children had been stolen in Co May, but does not appear to have a basis in fact.

In a post on X on 26 February, Keogan asked: “Did a group in Mayo not steal 100 children in April 2022?”

“No word about these children or comments from @tusla on this? Trafficking children is wrong,” she added.

The question came in response to another post about Ukrainian children being stolen and illegally deported to Russia.

However, there is no evidence that 100 children were trafficked in Mayo in April 2022 and Keogan was unable to direct The Journal to evidence for her claim when asked.

Human trafficking is a regularly misunderstood term, often confused with people-smuggling, where a person is illegally taken into a country. 

Trafficking instead refers to the act of forcing, threatening, or coercing people to exploit them, and is often described as a form of slavery, including by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

Irish law gives examples of such trafficking, including forced labour and coerced prostitution.

Asked by The Journal, Keogan said that she could not be sure of the specifics of the case without the details in front of her, but confirmed that she was referring to Ukrainian children being brought to Ireland.

In a second response by email, Keogan wrote: “Ireland has a horrendous record of child protection.

The Journal published an article, December 2023, stating sixty-two asylum seeking children have disappeared from State care after arriving in Ireland alone.

“It is of paramount importance that charities or organisations, however well meaning, are held to the standards and scrutiny of Irish law.

“Children fleeing a war, alone and unaccompanied, are particularly vulnerable.

“The charity which brought up to a hundred people to Mayo, some carers accompanying many children, should be further investigated by Tulsa, especially given the organiser of the trip has expressly stated that she could continue to do this in the future.”

There is a similar case that Keogan appears to have been referring to, but it did not involve trafficking.

In May 2022, a Mayo-based charity brought nearly 100 children who live near Chernobyl to Ireland, which was reported by Newstalk at the time.

The charity, Candle of Grace, said the children would be treated by a specialist in radiation diseases for three months in Castlebar where the clean air, it was hoped, would be good for their health.

But there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of the charity.

Keogan claimed that a television programme had been made about the case she was referring to.

The Candle of Grace charity had been investigated by RTÉ’s Prime Time programme at the time, and while there was some controversy over the charity’s work, none of it amounted to human trafficking.

Prime Time’s Fran McNulty clarified that the 59 children had been taken to Mayo by the charity, which was later criticised for not properly notifying Tusla or the gardaí (the county council had been notified ahead of their arrival).

Tusla is a state agency responsible for improving child welfare.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, also voiced concern, saying that separating children from their parents was risky and should be avoided.

About 30 of the children were not accompanied by a parent, RTÉ said.

However, Prime Time also reported that Tusla had confirmed that the women who accompanied the children had been officially appointed as legal guardians by their parents and that the charity had documents to prove this.

Although Keogan’s recent social media post suggested that Tusla did not comment, this was not the case; in fact, the agency did comment at the time, and did not find evidence that the children were stolen or trafficked.

“As is normal procedure to ensure the safety and wellbeing of any unaccompanied minors on their arrival, regardless of nationality or point of departure, the Department of Justice officials from the Border Management Unit immediately notify Tusla, the Child and Family Agency,” a Tusla spokesperson told The Journal in response to inquiries about the case.

“In this instance, Tusla, as is standard procedure, assessed each child individually to ensure their safety and protection in Ireland.”

Tusla noted that the children were not in State care and that no report was created in response to the case.

“Recognising the vulnerability of people fleeing Ukraine, and in particular the vulnerability of unaccompanied minors, it is important that proper safeguarding protocols and procedures for the protection of unaccompanied minors must be followed,” they said by email. 

The Journal also reached out to Candle of Grace about the case.

In an emailed response, Lily Luzan, who heads Candle of Grace, said that the charity had a legal agreement with the Government of Ukraine but were unable to inform all relevant Irish agencies, such as Tusla, due to the urgency of the situation.

They said that attacks in Ukraine meant that some of the children who had been planning to join the group going to Mayo were unable to leave the country.

“Children had legal guardians from Ukraine, who were supervising them from day
one until they went back home,” Luzan said. 

Luzan also praised locals, including Tusla workers, for supporting the children during their stay. 

She also said that most of the children who arrived in Mayo returned after three months, but some had arranged year-long extended stays and most were later joined by their mothers.

She also said that Candle of Grace would continue “hosting and planning to rehabilitate more children from the Chernobyl area in the future”.

“Chernobyl is a long-lasting problem, consequences of which will require rehabilitation for many many years ahead,” she said, describing it as “a very little but very important thing we could all provide”.

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