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22 March 2012

Trafficking in Northern Ireland – Killing demand and changing perception

Trafficking in Northern Ireland – Killing demand and changing perception

Like the same-sex marriage debate the issue of human trafficking is extremely topical and highly emotive. However the anti-trafficking movement is one of a shrinking number of causes that finds an open-armed welcome in every corner of the house, one that unites rather than divides public opinion, a rare thing - especially in Northern Ireland.

Human trafficking is a dangerous organised crime. There are more slaves in the world now than when slavery was abolished - an estimated 27million people. Each case represents an abuse of an image bearer of God. There is no panacea, no single policy that can solve this complex issue. It's difficult to tackle this international crime at a local level – but a grassroots response is essential.

Northern Ireland has the fastest growing sex trade in Europe and it is estimated that £500,000 is spent every week here on illegal prostitution. There have been some instances of forced labour and servitude but 70 per cent of the trafficked victims rescued in Northern Ireland in the past three years were sexual slaves. To date there has been an excellent interagency response undertaken by the government, police, churches, voluntary groups and NGOs. Most of the focus has rightfully been on helping victims and catching traffickers, in a crude sense this is the supply side of the equation. However convictions for trafficking are rare. Manipulation and the fear of violence and retribution mean that victims are often unwilling to testify against their captors.

While it is absolutely crucial to rescue victims and target traffickers, more needs to be done to combat the users – those fuelling the demand for trafficked women.

Detective Superintendent Philip Marshall, of Organised Crime PSNI, has commented that sex trafficking is 'rape for profit'. The maximum sentence for rape in Northern Ireland is life imprisonment. Meanwhile, Section 15 of The Policing and Crime Act 2009 introduced the offence of 'paying for sexual services of a prostitute (you can read trafficked victim) subjected to force etc'.The maximum punishment for this crime is a fine not exceeding £1,000.

It's a scandal that a man who effectively rapes a trafficked victim faces a lesser punishment than someone who drives without car insurance. How can someone who pays for the services of a prostitute, or trafficked victim, subjected to force escape with just a fine? It's rape in all but name.

At the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland we are highlighting this issue and building a consensus to have this inequity confronted.

Our campaign is simple - someone convicted of using a trafficked woman for sex should face a mandatory custodial sentence, and have their name added to the sex-offender's register.

We are not calling for brand new legislation, the law is already in place and this is already a strict liability offence, however the penalty is merely an insult to victims. A £1,000 fine is no deterrent. It sends out completely the wrong message to men who are using or are tempted to use trafficked women. Our campaign will be at the frontline of changing public perception with a strong clear message that if you use a trafficked woman you will become a social outcast.

The Northern Ireland Assembly will be issuing the High Hedges Act at the end of this month to deal with, as the name suggests, high hedges. Stormont does not have a reputation for cutting edge legislative change – but how about on this occasion Northern Ireland leading the way in confronting the demand for sexual slavery?

Our campaign will be launched by the end of the month. Keep an eye on our website for more information.