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.”
The first time Anneke Lucas heard about legislation designed to rescue human trafficking victims in hotels, she couldn’t help but think about how something like that could have helped her as a child.
“If I had seen the definition that said I was not a prostitute, that would have made a difference for me,” Lucas told NBC News. “I was the kind of child that wanted to get help but there was none.”
Lucas, who says she survived five-and-a-half years of being tortured and raped at the hands of human traffickers as a child, believes if she had seen a sign that explained she was a victim — not a prostitute — in the many hotels she was taken to, it could have changed her life.
It was that realisation that propelled her to advocate for more states to pass similar laws.
Lucas, 53, began an online petition, asking that legislators work toward a similar bill in New York — a Mecca of tourism and the hotel industry — following Connecticut’s lead.
After receiving more than 54,000 signatures, she teamed up with New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who began drafting legislation that would make the signs mandatory in hotels, and would train hotel staff how to spot victims.
IDEAS FOR LEGISLATION
Paulin has been a longtime advocate for human trafficking awareness and has already helped to pass legislation that trained hospital staff in New York to recognise and report potential victims.
She told NBC News her passion for the issue came from years of advocating for victims of domestic violence. Paulin recalled how she had been in salons when hairdressers noticed bruises on the hairlines of their clients.
“We knew if a hairdresser saw a bruise they could talk about it and have cards available in ladies room and it was very helpful and continues to be helpful,” Paulin said.
When the hairdressers began training to recognise the signs of domestic violence, Paulin realised that kind of training could be applied to a multitude of other professions.
So after Lucas brought the idea to her office to increase awareness in hotels, Paulin knew she had to turn the idea into a reality.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN HOTELS
Paulin’s legislation, which is still in the works, would include mandatory training of staff members as well as informative signs in hotels, motels and inns in New York state.
“One thing we always worry about is that pimps are very clever, and they might find a way of avoiding hotels [with the signs],” Paulin said. “But if there’s uniformity they can’t avoid all the hotels.”
Polaris, an anti-trafficking advocacy group, recorded more than 1,400 cases of trafficking in hotels between December 2007 and February 2015. During that time, more than 1,800 victims were identified in hotels.
The group says its statistics are self-analyzed and do not represent the full scope of the issue.
Out of 26,727 calls made to the Human Trafficking Hotline in 2016, more than 7,500 calls reported human trafficking.
According to the hotline and Polaris’ data, New York experienced the fifth-most trafficking out of any state behind California, Texas, Florida and Ohio.
More than 4,500 of the calls made came from victims or survivors themselves, according to the organisations.
While the majority of trafficking is of a sexual nature, according to Polaris, a small portion of those who are trafficked in hotels are labor trafficking victims, meaning they are forced into work in order to repay a debt.
Paulin said her legislation, if passed, would only be aimed at victims of sex trafficking, and in addition to posting signs, would teach the staff what to look for when they suspect a victim is on the premises.
According to Paulin, hotel staff would be trained to notice warning signs including: Intimidation of another person from someone who is obviously overbearing; a noticeable difference in age between two guests who might not look related; tattoos that declare a person is property; young people who come to a hotel repeatedly with different adults.
COMMITMENT FROM HOTELS
In order for the proposed legislation to work, Paulin said hotels, motels and inns in New York would need to get on board.
Original article appearing in NBC News: Click here to view