Child trafficking in Ireland: ‘It wasn’t fair forcing me to have a baby I didn’t ask for’

Shortly before Emma* left Turkey in 2016, she realised she was pregnant. The 18-year-old from east Africa had spent the previous four years locked in an apartment where she says her husband forced her to have sex with other men. “My life in Turkey was extremely tough,” she remembers. “My husband treated me very badly.”

Emma was just 14 when she was married to an older man. “He told my family he was going to make my life better and give me an education. But we went to Turkey and he wouldn’t let me speak to my family. I didn’t have a mobile phone, I was just lost in the middle of nowhere”.

She only managed to escape the situation when a woman she did not know offered to get her out of Turkey. “I think she had been watching me for some time and told me to trust her.” Emma says she only decided to follow her because she was a nun, or dressed as one.

Concerns have been repeatedly raised around the welfare and potential trafficking of the 39 unaccompanied children seeking asylum who went missing between 2017 and 2021 but have not yet been found

To this day, Emma does not know the true identity of the woman who, she says, flew with her to Dublin and abandoned her on a street in the city centre. With the help of a passerby, she found the International Protection Office where, scared and alone, she struggled to answer questions about her past. “When they asked me to explain it was the worst, having to think about it all was very painful.”

The following year, shortly after Emma gave birth to her son, Lisa* went through a similar ordeal. She says she was 15 when the man who had smuggled her across Europe left her alone on a street in Dublin. Unlike Emma, she was taken away from her family against their will. She still does not understand why she was kidnapped but remembers being beaten, raped and forced to take pills. She also became pregnant — something she did not realise until after a medical examination in a Dublin hospital.

“I know I sound crazy when I tell my story,” she explains. “When I speak about it people judge me and ask silly questions. People here bombarded me with information about human trafficking, they asked me to tell my story, but I wasn’t comfortable telling it. When the doctor said I was pregnant I panicked and told them to get rid of it. I just wanted to go back to my mum. It’s still so hard to speak about it, to this day.”

Lisa and Emma are two of the 475 victims of human trafficking who were formally identified in Ireland between 2013 and 2021. Of these, just 9 per cent (34) were children, significantly less than 22 per cent EU average for child trafficking.

No child trafficking victims were identified in the Republic in 2020 and 2021. This compares to the 5,468 victims of child trafficking identified in the UK in 2021, a number the British government says was an “undercount”. Concerns have also been repeatedly raised around the welfare and potential trafficking of the 39 unaccompanied children seeking asylum who went missing between 2017 and 2021 but have not yet been found. Five unaccompanied minors have been reported missing so far in 2022; two have not yet been found.

Olympian Mo Farah’s revelation in July that he was trafficked into the UK as a child shone a much-needed light on the reality of child trafficking in western European countries. However, Irish trafficking experts fear dozens of children trafficked for sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or criminal activities are slipping through the net and not being formally identifi

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) warned in June that child trafficking in Ireland received “very little public or political attention” and remained “more hidden and unknown”.

On September 28th, the Council of Europe’s group of experts on human trafficking (Greta) noted the number of Irish investigations into human trafficking had actually decreased in recent years while the number of prosecutions and convictions is “very low”. Official figures do not reflect the “real scale of the phenomenon in Ireland” partly due to “persisting limitations” of procedures for identifying victims, it said.

One explanation for this is the confusion around how child trafficking is conceptualised and defined in Irish law, says Nusha Yonkova, head of IHREC’s anti-human trafficking unit. Between 2009-2013, victims of crimes prosecuted under section 3(2) of the Child Trafficking & Pornography Act 1998 (as amended by Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008), were reported as victims of human trafficking. However, in 2017 the Department of Justice reclassified the reporting of data under section 3(2).

This reduced the extent to which this act could apply to cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation and has impacted overall statistics, says Yonkova. “Trafficking of children for sexual exploitation would be better placed in the Human Trafficking Act where other provisions for trafficking of human beings live to eliminate confusion,” she says.

In July, Ireland’s trafficking record was upgraded in the US State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in People (TIP) report. However, it said “systemic deficiencies” remain in the State’s victim identification, referral and assistance system and the decision to reclassify child trafficking victims as victims of sexual exploitation has “excluded children from trafficking statistics”. It also warned of “insufficient expertise among social workers” in this area.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee welcome the upgrading in July. Her department, in a statement released at the time, said: “The Minister notes with concern the statement in the 2022 TIPs report that ‘Traffickers subject Irish children to sex trafficking within the country’.

“The Minister is not aware of any evidence of this, either from the report or otherwise, but would point out that under Children First legislation and guidance Ireland has: mandatory reporting for certain ‘classes of persons’ to report child abuse concerns; and Tusla and [An Garda Síochána] have an agreed Protocol and reporting procedures for child protection and exploitation matters.”

The statement added that any suspicions of child trafficking for sexual abuse – including any evidence that comes to the attention of any voluntary organisation - should be reported immediately to An Garda Síochána.

Yonkova says identifying child victims must also be “clearly separated from the identification of adults because of their vulnerability and their level of maturity” while age recognition is also “of huge importance”. “Tusla needs to develop approved national guidelines on determining the age of suspected victims, unaccompanied minors or separated children in order to deploy child-specific care at the earliest opportunity. Intertwining child trafficking with international protection is also problematic as some victims are EU or Irish citizens, she adds.

Yonkova hopes the revised National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for trafficking, announced by Government in July, will broaden who is able to formally identify and support difficult-to-reach trafficking victims. An Garda Síochána is currently the only organisation that can formally identify victims.

The war in Ukraine has been the ‘wake-up call Ireland needed to have a identification system in place that is proofed against exploitation’

JP O’Sullivan and Ann Mara from MECPATHS, which works to protect children from trafficking in Ireland, say frontline professionals working with minors at risk of trafficking do not receive enough regular training. “The problem is clearly around identification,” says O’Sullivan. “We don’t even have to step off the island of Ireland to see much higher numbers of victims in Northern Ireland. In the Republic we seem to say, almost with a sense of pride, that we don’t have any child trafficking victims. But have staff been trained on indicators? If you’ve never been taught about trafficking, you’re not going to be looking out for it

JP O'Sullivan and Ann Mara from Mecpaths. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“The child may not present indicters during the assessment on day one because they’ve been threatened by traffickers but what about a few days later? Are staff trained to see them? Unfortunately, the answer is no.” The belief that trafficking is solely a transnational immigration issue is also a “myth”, adds O’Sullivan. “In the UK, children groomed for criminal exploitation are clearly identified as victims of trafficking. Here in Ireland, they’re criminalised and labelled as thugs.”

Meanwhile, nobody knows where the 39 unaccompanied minors who have gone missing since 2017 are, says Mara. “These children arrive traumatised with extreme, highly complex needs and yet they’re going missing. There needs to be more questions about why this happens.”

Mara and O’Sullivan agree that the revised NRM should focus on guidelines around identifying children and say the current referral system was “built for adults, not children”. However, MECPATHS has noted improvements in screening and identification since Ukrainians started arriving. In July, an unaccompanied girl who arrived from Ukraine was taken into Tusla emergency care when it transpired the man she was travelling with was not related to her. “It was because of the increased potential of child trafficking during the Ukraine crisis that a Tusla worker recognised this as a case of potential child trafficking,” says O’Sullivan.

Yonkova agrees that the war in Ukraine has been the “wake-up call Ireland needed to have a identification system in place that is proofed against exploitation”. However, with child trafficking identification numbers currently close to zero, Ireland remains a long way off comprehensively supporting all victims, she adds.

Tusla chief executive Bernard Gloster, in a recent interview with The Irish Times, said the agency was “experiencing pressure on the social work side” and that despite massive recruitment, “retention is an issue”.

This staff shortage comes at a time when referrals for unaccompanied minors arriving into Ireland has skyrocketed from between 150 to 170 in previous years to 466 so far this year when Ukrainian refugees are combined with minors from other countries, particularly Afghanistan and Somalia.

A Tusla spokeswoman told The Irish Times it had deployed more staff to Dublin Airport in recent months to undertake “specific screening of minors travelling with adults who may not have been their parents” as part of Ireland’s response to the Ukraine crisis. The child and family agency had also engaged with MECPATHS to “train frontline staff on child trafficking” and develop a more “appropriate response” to the issue, she said.

Those involved in trafficking people into or within Ireland may also be members of an organised crime group involved in money laundering or prostitution

At present, when concerns are raised regarding a potential child trafficking victim, an initial assessment is carried out by Tusla’s team for Separated Children seeking International Protection. Team members receive “induction in screening for indicators of trafficking” while training on human trafficking is also provided to all immigration officers, she said.

Ireland does not use two separate referral systems for adults and children as victims could “age out” of the system, while it “may be difficult to ascertain a person’s exact age”, she added. Asked whether DNA testing should be used on unaccompanied minors seeking to be reunited with family members, she said Tusla recognised the usefulness of DNA testing but that it was “just one tool in the assessment process for reunification”.

Garda Det Insp Danny Kelly, who oversees the Garda Organised Prostitution Unit and Human Trafficking Unit, says the Ukraine crisis has “definitely created more awareness” around child trafficking in Europe and that police forces are making a “concerted effort to be proactive” in this area.

He says there is ongoing training about trafficking for gardaí but warns that identifying victims, particularly children, remains challenging. When referrals are made to An Garda Siochana, many steps must be taken before formally declaring someone a victim, he said. Some victims may have been exploited in other European countries before coming here which requires co-operation with overseas police forces. “The level of detail you have to get to support a complaint is huge. It can also be quite difficult to get factual information in these cases.”

Those involved in trafficking people into or within Ireland may also be members of an organised crime group involved in money laundering or prostitution, says Det Insp Kelly. “We call them poly-criminal groups, we need to look at all those trends as well. There’s so many nuances to this.”

Lisa, who is now 20 and has spent years moving between foster homes and emergency care, says some officials still do not believe her story or her age. “People forced me to talk and then tell me I was lying. So I stopped talking.” She works hard to care for her five-year-old daughter but is clearly traumatised by her trafficking ordeal. She also believes the Irish health system should have offered a 15-year-old pregnant through rape the option of an abortion.

“I didn’t understand it was illegal back then to have an abortion but it wasn’t fair forcing me to have a baby I didn’t ask for. Now I’m happy because my daughter is my best friend but they shouldn’t have forced me to do it.”

*Names changed to protect the identify of trafficking survivors

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