Cost of Division
Northern Ireland Assembly
3:15 pm

Photo of Anna Lo

Anna Lo (Alliance)

I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

“regardless of whether they are co-operating with the law enforcement authorities; and further calls on the Executive to meet the obligations set out by the Council of Europe convention (2005) and the new EU directive (2011) on action against trafficking in human beings by addressing the demand for sexual and labour exploitation, increasing penalty levels, adopting a victim-centred approach and implementing effective preventative measures.”

I am grateful to the Members concerned for tabling a motion on an issue of such importance. The amendment adds to and strengthens the motion in the areas of prevention of human trafficking; prosecution of those responsible; and protection of victims.

The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings and the 2011 EU directive clearly outline a victim-centric approach that seeks to protect victims while calling for the implementation of effective policies and programmes to prevent trafficking, as well as calling for increased penalty levels. Human trafficking is the third most profitable illegal organised trade in the world today. It is a modern-day slavery that generates profits from human suffering. It represents a vulgar abuse of the fundamental human right of freedom.

I welcome the recent news of the first conviction for human trafficking in Northern Ireland. I commend all those who were involved in the process that brought about that conviction. I hope that it serves as a warning to all those who are currently involved in or facilitating human trafficking that they will be pursued by the full rigour of the law and that our society will not tolerate such horrors.

Human trafficking represents one of the greatest evils that society faces. Victims can be male or female. Children have also been identified here as victims of human trafficking. Through media reporting, the Blue Blindfold campaign and public seminars, there is increasing recognition that human trafficking is a problem in Northern Ireland. Not only is Northern Ireland a country of transit for human trafficking, acting as a point of access to its neighbours, but it has become a destination country for the crime.

According to various research recommendations, the approach to tackling human trafficking can be dealt with under the three Ps: prevention; prosecution; and protection. Prevention of human trafficking is essential. It represents a low-risk, high-profit trade. As with any trade, supply and demand drives the process. The demand for sexual and labour exploitation must be eliminated in order to stop the supply of human beings as commodities.

As Ms Ruane mentioned, many women who work in brothels here have been trafficked from abroad. Section 15 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which amends the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, is a positive step in that regard, as those who knowingly or unknowingly use trafficked prostitutes can be prosecuted.

More co-operation between countries of origin, transit and destination is needed to block known channels and stop the flow of vulnerable people to wealthy countries like ours. Countries of destination should network more to share statistics, research and information.

Prevention also comes from public awareness. While policies and strategies are important, the fight against human trafficking also occurs on our streets. If members of the public are aware of illegal activity or suspect that there is a brothel in their local area, for example, they must report that to Crimestoppers or the police. While it may seem as if an individual is participating willingly in activities such as prostitution or illegal labour, often they are in fear of violence by their traffickers, have been forced into debt or drug dependency, and are being threatened by their captors that, if they go to the authorities, they will be imprisoned and deported. Public awareness is crucial: if you suspect, report.

Once human trafficking has been detected, we must ensure the prosecution of those responsible and the protection of their victims. The prosecution rate for human trafficking is still far too low in the whole of the UK. The average sentence for human trafficking-related charges in the UK is just 4·69 years. Often, fines and sentences against offenders cause little damage to such a lucrative trade.

Article 19 of the 2011 EU directive stipulates that member states shall take necessary measures to establish national rapporteurs or equivalent mechanisms to assess trends and gather statistics in close co-operation with civil society organisations, generate reports and measure the effectiveness of anti-trafficking actions. I recently attended a human-trafficking seminar in the Hague and was very impressed by the work of the Dutch rapporteur, who submits to their Parliament annual reports with recommendations for action.

So that perpetrators can be brought to justice, we need collaboration between government organisations and NGOs to combat human trafficking and organised crime networks. Better partnership is needed between NGOs and the voluntary and community sectors so that they can continue to work as the eyes and ears.

The protection of victims of human trafficking is paramount. Victims have a 45-day recovery and reflection period. Once that is over, if they are not willing to co-operate as witnesses for prosecutions, they are deported. First, that reflection period is too short, particularly given the fact that many victims have been totally traumatised by working in the sex industry and being brutalised by their traffickers. Secondly, the deportation of victims of human trafficking re-victimises them. Returning a victim of human trafficking to their country of origin after they have been abused as slaves is inhumane and can place them in serious danger back in the grip of traffickers. They may also be ostracised by their families upon return.

Victims of both genders must be provided with specialised refuges and have access to medical, psychological, social or legal support and immigration advice. The rights of victims must be protected and promoted. Victims of sexual exploitation have suffered multiple rapes and abuses, which is a violation of their rights, their freedom and their bodies. Trafficked individuals who have been clearly identified as victims should be considered for the right to remain on humanitarian grounds, so that they may receive support and rehabilitation and be able to claim compensation from their traffickers. Although immigration is not a devolved matter and the responsibility for their immigration status falls within the Home Office remit, they constitute a very small number of people and would not open a floodgate of immigration. Trafficked victims should be treated as a special group, as outlined by the Palermo protocol and Council of Europe convention.

Our approach to human trafficking must be victim-centred to make sure that our response does not criminalise them. Removing the threat of imminent deportation would enable more victims to come forward and seek assistance. I recognise the gravity of human trafficking. I have proposed an Assembly all-party group (APG) on human trafficking, which will meet on 14 February at 4.00 pm in room 29. I look forward to seeing many of my fellow Members there as a continuing commitment to the motion. We hope that the APG will instigate a cross-departmental response to the problem. There will be opportunities for networking with other jurisdictions of the UK and other EU member states that have their own working groups.

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