A number of leading civil society organisations have called on the Government to reform the system that identifies human trafficking in Ireland.
Seven organisations have written to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, requesting a revision to the National Referral Mechanism or NRM which was approved by Cabinet last year.
The NRM provides a way for State and civil society to cooperate, share information about potential victims, identify those victims and facilitate their access to advice, accommodation and support.
Organisations say its revision is crucial because of the expected rise in exploitation of women and children fleeing war in Ukraine.
Akidwa, Doras, the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI), International Transport Workers’ Federation, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), MECPATHS, and Ruhama have collectively expressed concern that the NRM will not have the capacity to deal with an increase in trafficking victims in Ireland.
They have asked Ms McEntee to urgently consult with them on the matter.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which is Ireland’s National Rapporteur on the Trafficking of Human Beings, has echoed calls for the NRM to be progressed.
Its anti-trafficking unit has said the current war and refugee crisis highlights the need for Ireland to be properly prepared in identifying cases early.
Nusha Yonkova said: “The war has generated an unprecedented number of refugees – mostly women and children – they’ve left with little or nothing at all, so they’re quite vulnerable. Criminal organisations, gangs and individuals are taking advantage of the most vulnerable, so we have to be anticipating, monitoring and acting now to elimnate any of this happening in Ireland as much as we can.”
The Immigrant Council of Ireland, which is one of the organisations that wrote to Ms McEntee, said action needed to be taken before the situation in Ireland deteriorated further as thousands of extremely vulnerable Ukrainian women and children will enter the country.
CEO Brian Kiloran said: “The current NRM – in particular the identification system, which already struggles to identify victims – will not be able to deal with an increase in trafficking victims. We need an immediate overhaul and a robust system which will allow us to identify victims, ensure they are released from exploitation, and supported in dealing with their trauma.”
He also said the NRM was applicable to all suspected victims, not just Ukrainian refugees.
“We have been calling on Minister McEntee to meet with us on this subject for a number of months, and we hope that we are given the opportunity to consult with her on these crucial reforms soon.”
Echoing the ICI’s comments, CEO of Ruhama Barbara Condon expressed “deep concerns” about the risk of exploitation to women and children fleeing the war.
“There are unprecedented numbers of people displaced from their country and we have seen time and time again that traffickers and opportunists exploit the vulnerabilities of women and children crossing borders for safety. Through our frontline work we see each day the deep level of trauma and the severe destruction caused by trafficking of women for sexual exploitation.”
According to the MRCI’s Senior Legal Officer Isabel Toolan many cases of trafficking for labour exploitation go undetected due to lack of awareness.
“Organisations and communities who come into direct contact with potential victims need to be trained on the signs of human trafficking. This is brought into sharp focus by the arrival of thousands of vulnerable people. Exploitation and trafficking are real risks when people are uprooted and desperate, when they don’t speak the language of the country or know the system and their rights.”
While many people in Ireland believe that trafficking means the transportation of people into the country, Nusha Yonkova says that is the crime of human smuggling.
“Trafficking means the exploitation of people. Therefore, a refugee could arrive in Ireland and stay here for a couple of years but due to his or her vulnerability they could become vulnerable to trafficking which could occur at that point.”
Some of the examples of trafficking in Ireland include sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic work, forced begging, forced criminality and forced marriage.
MECPATHS, which is a charity that works with children who are trafficked, has worked with the Irish Hotels Federation and others to train staff in how to recognise the signs of trafficking.
Network and Communications Manager JP O’Sullivan said MECPATHS is happy to offer training for anyone wishing to learn more and to contribute to the increased safeguarding and protection of children, globally.
“We are aware of the heightened vulnerability of children travelling to Ireland from the Ukraine and wish to respond in whatever way we can.”
On a positive note, Ms Yonkova says that by using the Temporary Residence Directive, the EU’s response has been commendable.
“The fact we offer free PPS numbers helps. It means they don’t have to go into hiding so its difficult for those that want to exploit them or bogus systems to do so.”