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Slaves held amongst us: We need to do more to tackle human trafficking in Ireland 

Sr Eilís Coe of the Sisters of Charity was previously at an international meeting on human trafficking when one of the Kosovan representatives noted that Kosovo and the Irish state were both ranked among those who considered to be Tier 2 watch list by the American State Department in relation to how effective they were in combating human trafficking. 

Being placed on the Tier 2 watch list meant that the state in question was considered to be “failing to take appropriate actions or provide significant evidence towards their efforts to combat increasing  numbers of severe forms of trafficking.”

The Irish state was then, uniquely among developed western European states, ranked along with Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Congo and others.


That status has since been upgraded to Tier 2 and removes the immediate prospect of being placed among the Tier 3 states which in effect facilitate human trafficking and slavery. 

As I reported before, much of the international concern is based on the seeming lack of knowledge on the part of the Irish authorities of the extent of human trafficking here, and the low level of convictions. The 2022 report said that there had been just two convictions here since at least as far back as 2013.

What has always struck me, and this was reinforced by Sr Eilís’s disturbing account of what is happening, is the lack of intelligence on the part of the state.

It is certainly not that the police and others in authority are corruptly facilitating the vile trade in human beings but that their deficiencies are apparently making it easier for those, native and foreign, criminal gangs who see Ireland as a soft touch.

Sr. Eilís told me that within hundreds of yards of where we were speaking there are brothels in Dublin city centre in which women and possibly even under age girls are held effectively as slaves. That is surely a terrible indictment on this country, and of us all at some level, that this ought to be happening amongst us. 

Sr. Eilís is a member of RENATE, the Religious in Europe Network against Trafficking and Exploitation.

An amalgam of accounts of women who were trafficked here but who were rescued is that of ‘Stella,’ (with details changed to protect people’s identities) a Nigerian university student who was taken to Ireland and forced into prostitution in Dublin after being raped and then sold to other men to be raped., all the while being kept as a slave. It was only when a girl being held in the same house smashed windows that the Gardaí were alerted and she was rescued and taken into the care of the Sisters. 

The manner in which people are trafficked also follows a pattern. There is much evidence of people arriving into Dublin airport with either no documentation or with false documentation. 

The case of Saleban Abdisahar who was sentenced to three years in March for his part in smuggling people here may or may not be connected to sex trafficking although the description of what he was doing, and of one of the women who was also detained on the day he was arrested in 2022, certainly sounds like the manner in which women are smuggled into Ireland and other countries. We just do not know.

There is a distinction, but not an immediately obvious one, between smuggling and trafficking. The first involves criminals such as Abdisahar who are, or who claim to be, merely facilitating illegal immigrants. Once the person is brought to the destination, the smuggler will leave them to their own devices often having taken back the false documentation supplied. 

Trafficking is where the victim unwittingly follows the same path of entry but is never allowed to separate themselves from the trafficker. Detecting this might seem to be possible given proper surveillance and observation by trained staff, but if the women concerned are not aware that they are going to be handed over to be slaves, but  instead believe that they are embarking on a promised new life, then they are going to go along with the charade at the airport and other points of entry. 

Victims like Stella –  and their numbers are unknown but Sr. Eilís speaks of “hundreds” –  then disappear into an underworld of violence and degradation that barely bears thinking about. 

But we must confront this reality, because that world only exists and is only maintained by the traffickers if there are sufficient numbers of people here, including Irish men, who are prepared to pay to have sex with a slave.

There is also the fact that even where trafficking may not be involved, as with recent disturbing reports of the sexual exploitation of children under the “care” of the state, that this can only take place with the cooperation of people who may not be directly involved but whose crime is turning a blind eye. 

Such people may be working in hotels or may be operating as taxi drivers conveying both the children being used and their clients to hotels and other locations. 

The same moral ambivalence or petty monetary considerations applies at a less serious but nonetheless unacceptable degree where people are buying cannabis grown by slaves, and perhaps even using legitimate services that are provided by slaves who like slaves everywhere and for all of history are only cheap and compliant because they are under the control of others.

There is no virtue in speaking of the historical legacy of slavery and renaming libraries and removing statutes and beating ones breast over the past if actual slaves and slaveowners dwell among us. 

There are clearly, as Sr. Eilís told me, nurses and Gardaí and people in the hospitality and other sectors who are aware of the problem because they see the evidence or suspect that they may see some of the evidence – including residents of Dorset Street in Dublin who have reported what they believed to be the sale of children to adult men –  and who want to prevent what they are witnessing.

The Irish state, and Irish society in general needs to take this more seriously and direct its resources at prevention and prosecutions. For this to take place, more people need to know about the scale and nature of human trafficking and its connection to organised crime.

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