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Call for cross border action on human trafficking

By Ann Marie Foley - 17 October, 2013

PrintAn important and opportune forum is how Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, described the Cross Border Forum on Human Trafficking which she addressed yesterday (16th October) in Newry, Co Down.  

She began her presentation by thanking Minister Alan Shatter and Minister David Ford for hosting the event. 

“A collaborative effort to engage, share and act to prevent trafficking across the island of Ireland is not just welcome, but critical,” she said.

The Ministers were united in promoting the message that partnership is key in fight against human trafficking.

Sarah Benson explained that Ruhama has been working with women affected by prostitution for nearly two and a half decades but encountered its first international victim of trafficking in the year 2000.

Since then the organisation has worked with over 300 suspected victims and of them 160 were new referrals in the last six years.

Sarah Benson said that initially when her organisation began responding to sex trafficking, most of the victims were Eastern European.

Later, there people from further afield and particularly from African countries. “This is truly a global phenomenon and in 2011 alone we worked with victims of trafficking from 20 different countries,” she said.  

She highlighted other facts such as the inextricable connection between sex trafficking and prostitution – sex trafficking occurs because of the existence of organised prostitution. 

The methods that are used to hold victims are not always as overt as people may expect. Some victims may have their papers or be given small amounts of money but are often threatened and subjected to debt bondage.

“Victims are told they won’t be believed, that they will be criminalised and perhaps jailed or deported. They are told that the trafficker has friends in the police and that the best thing is to stay put and get on with it – and many do. Often they have no contacts beyond those in the brothel; limited or no English; no money and feel that they have no options but to stay,” Sarah Benson explained.

In terms of what can be done to combat trafficking, she said it is important to spread awareness of services and rights to the people who have been trafficked.

Likewise things should not be taken at face value as often it can take a long time to identify that someone is a victim of trafficking – a person in prostitution may be a potential victim whose plight could be quite easily overlooked.

Positive measures are being taken to shift focus from those in prostitution as potential offenders to vulnerable persons who may even by trafficking victims.

Ruhama is one of a number of NGOs helping the Garda Siochana with in-service training on trafficking. This training is delivered by both Gardaí experienced in investigating organised prostitution, Ruhama trainers and an anti trafficking consultant who is a retired member of the force.

The course is now delivered twice annually to frontline Gardai (including some PNSI officers). It is about to be extended to some of the Garda Training staff in Templemore and there are discussions to adapt it for senior Garda personnel.

“While there are still situations where we regret to see women being criminalized, as service providers have noted an incremental shift whereby the number of referrals to our own services from various Garda stations across the country ..increased,” said Sarah Benson.

She spoke of the growing importance of following the money and technological trails. She also reiterated the point that the sex trade and sex trafficking would not exist without the sex buyers so these must also be targeted.

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