People Trafficking: Public Awareness

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15, 2 November 2021

4. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Justice what measures are being considered to raise public awareness of the signs that people are being trafficked by organised criminals. (AQO 2653/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I know that every Assembly Member finds it abhorrent that slavery is happening in any form in Northern Ireland, but, sadly, it is. Raising public awareness to identify and help to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking is therefore a key priority for my Department and the wider Executive.

My clear commitment to tackling modern slavery and human trafficking crimes is set out in the Northern Ireland 'Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Strategy 2021-22', which was published earlier this year. A key part of its "prevent" strand is about ensuring that there is collaborative working and sharing of knowledge across strategic partners to identify best practice and to facilitate greater public awareness of modern slavery. My officials work with key statutory and non-statutory partners to maximise every opportunity to raise awareness through social media and information on nidirect. This year, we have also been able to support a number of projects that are working on these issues through the assets recovery community scheme. The organised crime task force (OCTF) annual report and threat assessment also sets out the actions taken to target and disrupt organised criminality and has a specific section on modern slavery.

As all Members know, Anti-Slavery Day was on 18 October 2021. My Department worked alongside partners to mark that day and to raise the profile of that important event by sharing and promoting social media content, through public engagement events and by illuminating council and civic buildings. For example, Belfast City Hall was lit up red this year. I also attended events organised by Flourish NI and Invisible Traffick, which raised awareness through creative and innovative projects. Those events were ultimately hopeful and inspiring despite the nature of these crimes and the impact on victims.

I am committed to taking every opportunity to raise awareness, sending the message that violations of human rights will not be tolerated, that criminals will be pursued and prevented from causing further harm, and that victims will be protected.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, Minister, I should acknowledge that Dame Sara Thornton, the UK's Anti-Slavery Commissioner, is in the Building today.

The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking (GRETA), which is part of the Council of Europe, said:

"Brexit has heightened the risk of exploitation for EU workers".

Given our geography, we in Northern Ireland are at particular risk of that happening. What specific actions is your Department taking to raise awareness and to take action to address the specific risks that we face? The strategy that you mentioned does not, I am afraid, say very much about the risks of EU exit. What is the Department doing in that regard?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I am aware that Dame Sara Thornton is here today. I had a very constructive meeting with her yesterday, during which we looked at some of the emerging risk factors.

The Department takes seriously all organised crime and threats of organised crime and has assessed those threats in relation to Brexit. From a criminal's perspective, it is irrelevant whether the commodity that they are trafficking is illegal goods or human beings; the monetary value is all that matters. The work that we have been engaged in around disrupting those involved in organised crime who are trafficking any sort of goods across our borders or trying to exploit any loopholes resulting from Brexit is hugely important. It has to be said, however, that the policing arrangements, cooperation and future security partnerships that are currently in place have given us a much greater degree of continuity of service across the EU. Indeed, I met the Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) last week and will meet the Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) this week to keep them updated on and abreast of the challenges that we face and to keep abreast of the work that they are doing, alongside us, to tackle issues such as modern slavery, human trafficking and other organised crime. It is incredibly important that we do not lose that future security partnership, which forms part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), so I hope that those who are negotiating at the moment and who are considering how the protocol can be changed and implemented differently will give due consideration to the impact that that will have on crime.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 2:30, 2 November 2021

That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 3, 5 and 7 have been withdrawn.