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Human trafficking in Ireland, part 2 (and about those brothel raids)

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In the comments to this post a few weeks ago, where I looked at the Irish government’s latest human trafficking report, a reader pointed me to the text of a presentation given recently by Detective Superintendent Noel Clarke of the Garda Síochána (Irish police)’s Human Trafficking Unit. I promised to give it a post of its own, which I meant to do last weekend, but something else intervened. Which turned out to be just as well, because in the meantime we’ve had the island-wide brothel raids which I referred to in this post – and what we’ve learned from those raids ties in very neatly with the contents of the presentation.

Much of Clarke’s statement is bland operational stuff but a couple points drew my attention. The first is his reference to the administrative status available to trafficked persons:

In the cases where the potential victim was not legally in the State and there were reasonable grounds to suspect that crime had occurred they were granted a Recovery and Reflection period and a subsequent Temporary Residence Permission… In 2011 only one of the 57 potential victims did not have a permission to be in the State and that individual was granted a Recovery & Reflection period and a subsequent Temporary Residence Permission.

This underscores what I said in the earlier post about the status serving as an anti-deportation measure, hence not being applied to persons who already have some kind of protection against deportation. But as you can see from the stats in that post, that status is “asylum seeker” for the majority of persons reported. And around 95% of asylum seekers in Ireland will lose their protection against deportation once their claims have been determined (that’s the approximate rejection rate). The Department of Justice gives the impression (paragraph 10) that the administrative arrangements will kick in automatically for identified trafficking victims should their other permission expire, but that’s not what actually happens: instead, failed asylum seekers who have been trafficked must ask for recognition under the arrangements, as a last-ditch effort to avoid deportation, at precisely the time when their immigration status is most precarious. Which is an awfully cruel procedural hoop to put vulnerable people through. It’s one of only several reasons why the arrangements are woefully inadequate for the people they are meant to assist, but that’s a subject for another post.

Another interesting thing in the presentation is that Clarke says:

The one significant trend emerging from the data is that in approximately two-thirds of the cases and after a detailed investigation no evidence of human trafficking has been disclosed.

Or to read it the other way around, only about one-third of the cases that are reported to the Gardaí as involving human trafficking actually do involve human trafficking. This is not too far from my interpretation of the 2011 data as showing only 14 confirmed cases out of 57 reported (that’s actually around one quarter, but the difference between a third of 57 and a quarter of 57 is only five people).

And that brings us neatly to last week’s brothel raids, which for all the hoopla seem to have been something of a damp squib as an anti-trafficking operation. To the best of my knowledge, there are no reports that any trafficking victims were found in this jurisdiction, though apparently three were found in the North (bearing in mind, however, the much broader offence of trafficking there). And according to this piece in today’s Sunday Independent,

Senior sources said that all the young women who were detained or questioned said they were working in the sex trade here voluntarily…Gardai disagree with claims by Catholic and feminist groups that there are high levels of human trafficking involved in Ireland’s sex trade.

Now, there should always be a health warning attached to statements attributed to anonymous “senior sources”. But in this case we have a named source saying pretty much the same thing. To return to that Noel Clarke presentation about the data in the Department of Justice report:

we are of the view that is it an accurate portrayal of the extent and nature of the problem in Ireland.

And if it is an accurate portrayal, then there aren’t high levels of human trafficking involved in Ireland’s sex trade because at most there were 14-19 victims last year while according to the pro-criminalisation lobby themselves there are over 1000 women in the Irish sex industry. Less than 2% is not a high level by any measure.

These kinds of figures are unreliable, of course; I’m always the first to say that. Undoubtedly there are cases that have gone undetected. But when even a police operation of last week’s scale fails to turn up evidence of a large number of victims, the burden of proof can’t keep being put on the side of the sceptics. It’s all well and good pointing out that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence but as justification for a potential legal change with significant consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods, it’s nowhere near good enough.

One final thing I want to address about the raids is the claim that police were not targetting the women selling sex. That is patently not true for the North, where three Polish sex workers have been prosecuted despite acknowledgement from all sides that there was no trafficking or pimping involved. There don’t seem to have been any arrests of sex workers in the South (despite the admission by Gardaí, in this piece again, that it is usually sex workers rather than pimps who face brothel-keeping charges), but look at what this article says:

An unknown number of prostitutes were spoken to by gardaí and their immigration details were checked. They will not face prosecution but may become witnesses.

All those congratulating the Gardaí for “not going after the women” seem to have missed that little detail emphasised above. If they were truly “not going after” them, why would they need to check their immigration status? What exactly do supporters of these raids think the Gardaí are going to do with the knowledge gleaned from those checks? In a country where even trafficking victims from outside the EU aren’t safe from eventual deportation, you can be damn sure that migrant sex workers won’t be; at best, they may be kept around long enough to serve as witnesses (if they don’t make themselves disappear before then). An undocumented person has more to fear from the police than prosecution alone. That’s something criminalisation advocates who think the Swedish model would turn sex workers and police into BFFs really need to get their heads around.

On RTÉ’s Prime Time last Thursday, Paul Maguire, the reporter whose February “exposé” of the online industry arguably set the stage for these raids, queried whether they’ve had any effect. He pointed out that the number of escort ads the day after the raids was actually higher than it was the day before. But why would the number go down? After all, there were as many women struggling to pay their bills the day after as the day before. There were as many migrants without employment permission the day after as the day before. And for those can truly be said to be in the business by choice – the so-called happy hookers – well, they weren’t the raids’ target anyway, were they?

None of the above means I don’t think there is exploitation in the Irish sex industry, or that it shouldn’t be investigated. But it is legitimate to query whether the outcome of this particular operation justified its considerable cost, and to ask whether more could have been achieved with less heavy-handed tactics. And if the professed concern for the women is genuine, then we need also ask about the impact of the raids on them. It simply cannot be assumed that they’d welcome such interventions with the same enthusiasm their would-be rescuers do. Particularly if, as the evidence we have suggests, such a small percentage of them actually need rescuing in the first place.


About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

One response »

  1. Thank you for this blog. Very well done 🙂


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