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Column: Think about sex trafficking. Do Irish people come to mind?

They should. Irish people have been trafficked abroad for sex – but it’s not as simple as you might think, writes David Lohan.

David Lohan

Irish people have been the victims of human trafficking. But it’s not just a matter of shackles or darkened rooms – it’s a lot more subtle than that, and it means something for all of us, writes David Lohan.

WHEN THE TERM ‘human trafficking’ is mentioned what deeds come to mind? When the term ‘victim of human trafficking’ is mentioned, what mental imagery is conveyed?

These are important considerations. Many misconceptions exist concerning human trafficking, with the result that debates on the issue often become bogged down in matters that are in truth of little relevance to real situations or to real victims.

Irish citizens were exploited for forced labour in Australia around 2008. And at least one Irish citizen was trafficked for forced commercial sexual exploitation in Holland’s legalised sex industry. The eighth report of the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings shows that in 2003 an Irish victim of human trafficking was encountered in Holland (page 162). Little else is recorded about this particular case.

However, in 2005 another Irish victim was recorded, and comparably more is known about this woman (page 163). She was identified as part of Holland’s notorious Sneep Case. Verification of the relationship between the 2005 case and the Sneep Case comes from numerous sources, including one report from the Dutch National Crime Squad (page 11).

Three aspects of the Sneep Case contributed to the high profile it received. The first was the viciousness with which the victims were treated by their traffickers. The second was the enormity of the case, some 120 victims, all women and all trafficked into forced commercial sexual exploitation by a Turkish gang. The third was the fact that the case challenged the misconceptions concerning victimhood – as the victims were found, not locked in darkened rooms, but openly advertised in the Red Light district of Holland’s open-window prostitution. Some had been on sale there for 10 years.

Modern-day slaves

It is small wonder then that the Dutch National Rapporteur has noted situations “of human trafficking are not always easy to recognise.” Indeed an understanding of human trafficking premised solely on kidnappings, physical restraints and darkened rooms offers little insight into how the events of the Sneep Case could have come to pass.

Most are surprised to learn that human trafficking has little to do with kidnapping. Sure, kidnappings do occasionally occur, but they are the exception rather than the norm. Some are surprised too when it is conveyed that the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking, the Palermo Protocol, does not require movement or transport to occur for an act of human trafficking to be committed.

Indeed most human trafficking occurs within the confines of national borders, an act referred to as internal human trafficking. Some estimates state that of the 27 million people who live as modern-day slaves only some of them, 600,000 to 800,000, are moved across borders annually. Human trafficking is not then an issue of migration, albeit it can be an issue for some migrants.

Human trafficking is a process. At the heart of this process is violence. The process is one which usually includes, at a minimum, the following acts: the use of deception, the use of debt, threats against the trafficked person and against family members, verbal abuse and rape. The purpose of this process is well-understood by those who have enslaved their fellow human beings over many generations: it is the process by which compliant slaves are fashioned. Little by little the person’s spirit is killed off in a process that may be likened to domestic abuse; it is after all the body that traffickers exploit.

There is no need for shackles or locks. Real control comes by less overt means. Victims of human trafficking are not locked in darkened rooms out of sight. Indeed they would be of little use, or profit, to their traffickers if they were. Even human traffickers need to advertise their wares if they are to profit from the exploitation of their victims and each year they net an estimated US$32 billion. In the Western world those wares are most often sold as prostitutes.

Cold-hearted crime

Bearing these facts in mind one should now ask whether the mental imagery that resulted from the questions posed earlier is challenged. The truth of all these statements is evident, not by virtue of any claim made in this article, but through the thousands upon thousands of cases described by the media in articles across the world, through government reports and through the countless reports of agencies providing support for self-identifying victims. All of these resources are readily available to readers via the internet. The sameness of the tale they tell soon becomes apparent to interested readers and it testifies to efficacy of the cold-hearted crime perpetrated daily against victims across the globe, usually in the pursuit of money.

Human trafficking is a reality in Ireland. It does not involve kidnappings. It does not require transportation. Of the 137 victims detailed in the annual report of Ireland’s Anti Human Trafficking Unit at the Department of Justice over the past two years six of those encountered were Irish children. The US Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 sheds further light on these claims, saying children “are subjected to prostitution in various cities in Ireland, including Kilkenny, Cork, and Dublin” (page 192).

Human trafficking is not an issue merely for the Irish state, but for Irish communities. When one looks at the places where all these victims have been located one quickly realises that victims are often in our very midst. When one confronts the misconceptions concerning human trafficking the realisation occurs that its victims are not out of sight, but rather hidden in plain sight. Their binds are not physical restraints but those delivered through physical, psychological and, sometimes even, spiritual abuse.

Awareness is a key element in tackling this, and other, abuses perpetrated against the person. However, awareness cannot be premised on misunderstandings. It demands real understanding of what is done by traffickers, why it is done and how they benefit. My hope is that this article will go some way, as a start at least, towards challenging commonly held misconceptions that hinder this understanding.

David Lohan is the co-author of a book on human trafficking, Open Secrets: An Irish Perspective on Trafficking & Witchcraft. All proceeds of the book go towards helping the work of Cois Tine, a charitable organisation which provides outreach services to African migrants living in Ireland. David Lohan is presently completing a masters in politics at University College Cork. More information on human trafficking is available from his website at PalermoProtocol.com.

Read: Children subjected to prostitution in Dublin, Cork and Kilkenny>

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David Lohan

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