When will we confront Northern Ireland’s uncomfortable link with human trafficking?
Last month saw a 39 year old man denied bail by Belfast Magistrates Court following charges related to human trafficking. Whilst often reported as one of the most heinous crimes, this case is just one of many ones in the last few years all either coming from or connected to Northern Ireland.
On October 23 2019, news headlines were dominated by reports that 39 bodies had been found in a refrigerator lorry in Essex, England. The story captivated news across the UK, and brought the issue of migration into the UK back into the headlines with a more somber tone and whilst the issue has been ever present in the news this week again, it was the nationality of the man standing accused of their deaths that a stroke cord to the people of Northern Ireland.
Shortly after the bodies’ discovery it was confirmed that Mr Maurice Robinson, 23, from Mayobridge, County Down Northern Ireland, was the driver.
Mr Robinson drove the trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it sailed to Purfleet in England. This were he is said to have discovered the bodies he was paid to bring into the country. He later plead guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and admitted assisting unlawful immigration and money laundering. It was also claimed that Mr Robinson was to be paid £60,000 to bring 39 illegal immigrants into the UK.
Certainly the most highest profile case to date, Northern Ireland has been plagued by stories of human trafficking in recent years. Even during Mr Robinson’s April hearing, he stood alongside Christopher Kennedy, 23, of Corkley Road in Darkley, County Armagh, who denied his own charges of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland defines human trafficking as; Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, Sexual exploitation, removal of organs, and securing services etc by force, threats or deception and/or from children/vulnerable people.
Mr Robinson and Mr Kennedy are not the only significant cases of human trafficking linked to Northern Ireland either. According to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in September 2019 (one month before the Essex lorry deaths) “Detectives in PSNI’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit arrested a 57 year old man in the Belfast area on suspicion of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, controlling prostitution, brothel keeping and money laundering.”
In addition to these arrests, last year a 27 year old woman was arrested in the Antrim area on suspicion of controlling prostitution, brothel keeping and money laundering, and a further five men at the time were arrested in Stewartstown, Carrickfergus, Banbridge, Newtownabbey and Omagh on suspicion of paying for sexual services.
Due the high volume of cases, PSNI Detective Inspector Mark Bell issued a statement at the time, in which he was quoted as saying “Human trafficking is unacceptable. The criminals responsible prey on vulnerable people, violate their human rights and exploit them for their own selfish gains. Unlike drugs or firearms which are only bought or sold once, a victim can be sexually exploited over and over again, which could generate a continuous source of income for criminals.”
These arrests also preceded the release of the Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF) publication which revealed that 59 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in Northern Ireland within a 12-month period. The Belfast Telegraph which looked at the 76 page document, reported that “some 40% were suspected victims of labour exploitation, with 37% believed to be the victims of sexual exploitation.”
Of these victims, eight boys and seven girls under the age of 18 were among those rescued by authorities. But just 2 out of the 15 people that were arrested and detained for human trafficking related offences were charged with the crime.
After the reports of the increased rates in human trafficking, the Christian charity charity group, CARE (Christian Action, Research, and Education) reported why its harder for authorities to charge perpetrators with the crime.
They claim that the main reasons are that “the victims have been through a mentally damaging ordeal and are then thrust into the gruelling process of the Northern Ireland justice system. This is a system individuals from Northern Ireland have problems understanding let alone those from other countries. In addition, many victims of trafficking do not speak English as a first language, let alone being able to understand the technical legal jargon of the criminal justice system. Without adequate evidence the traffickers cannot be held responsible and therefore cannot be convicted.”
They continue to say that time is a major factor in successful prosecution, stating that the “Public Prosecution Service (PPS) on average takes almost 35 weeks to decide whether Crown Court cases should proceed — an increase of more than 21% compared to 2017–18. In addition, it can take time for the PSNI to produce a file for the PPS to consider, lengthening the amount of time.”
Many reports and investigations have taken place into the rates in Northern Ireland, many remaining inconclusive as to the reason why Northern Ireland is commonly linked to the crime. Theories such as the easy routes between NI and Scotland, and the border with the Republic of Ireland making traveling and the movement of people somewhat easier, or the alleged connections to human trafficking and the sex industry to Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups remain inconclusive.
The jury is still out on what makes Northern Ireland a human trafficking hot spot, but with constant reports of the crime appearing almost every few months, it seems that this is an crime epidemic that isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Kurtis Reid is a freelance journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland.