Emerging Out of the Shadows – Northern Ireland Tackles Human Trafficking

RightsNI is delighted to welcome this guest post from Hannah Russell. Hannah is currently undertaking a PhD at Queen’s University, Belfast entitled the ‘Right to Life and European Conflicts’. She has worked for human rights organizations in Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Occupied Syrian Golan and Palestine. This has included being a member of the QUB Human Rights Centre’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Human Trafficking.

Human trafficking is a hot topic at the moment. This is not without justification, though the emerging interest represents a significant reversal in attitudes. As recent as 2007 Northern Ireland Office representatives were denying that trafficking was an issue in Northern Ireland, stating that there was “no firm evidence.” Yet in the last five years as media attention and civil society pressure has grown the law enforcement, legislature and judiciary have been unable to ignore the problem any longer.

Human trafficking is a multifaceted problem. It is internationally defined as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Sadly many of these elements exist in Northern Ireland, but our biggest problem seems to be human trafficking within the sex trade. Northern Ireland has been exposed as one of the fastest growing sex industries in the UK with victims from all round the world.

Human trafficking is criminalised within Northern Ireland under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Act 2004 and the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. Nevertheless there are a number of gaps within these laws and their partnering policies which inhibit effective prevention and protection from being achieved. Furthermore, until recently the Courts of Northern Ireland have appeared reluctant to deal with the issue choosing to focus on prostitution as opposed to trafficking. For example, in the Thomas Carroll case the defendants’ trafficking charges were dropped after agreeing to plead guilty to money laundering and controlling prostitution, convictions that carry less of a stigma and inflict less jail time. Nevertheless, two successful convictions for trafficking in Northern Ireland within the space of three months (R v Matyas Pis (2012) NICC 14; R v Rong Chen and Others [2012] NICC 26) provide hope that we may have seen an end to judicial reluctance on the issue. Yet, while convictions are welcomed, Northern Ireland still has a long way to go in effectively addressing human trafficking. Unfortunately this is not unique to Northern Ireland, spreading across Europe and beyond.

The failing of many European countries to adequately deal with and protect against human trafficking has recently been tackled head on. As of April 2013 the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) must have legislation in place which reflects, at the very least, the mandatory elements of the 2011 European Union (EU) Directive on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting its Victims. The Directive provides a summary of the minimum that is required from governments and agencies in taking effective strides towards tackling human trafficking. When read in conjunction with the more comprehensive United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons it becomes astonishingly clear how much further we have to go.

To put it in perspective, one issue that is particularly worrying as the law stands in Northern Ireland is its failure to address a new age of globalisation where individuals can remain habitual residences within the UK without ever adopting UK nationality. This is particularly pertinent considering the unique situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in as a result of the terms set out in the Good Friday Agreement 1998. The 1998 Agreement allows for a choice of nationality, which enables an individual to be recognised “as Irish or British, or both, as they may choose.” To ensure that non-nationals with substantial links to Northern Ireland do not escape prosecution, legislation should be amended so that the same terms that are imposed upon nationals are also enforced against habitual residents. Additionally this ties in with the need for extra-territorial jurisdiction to be implemented into domestic law. Currently those who commit trafficking offences against UK nationals or habitual residents abroad escape prosecution.

The criminalisation of internal trafficking is a further requirement of the EU Directive. As it stands within domestic law human trafficking is only illegal if it involves the victim being moved into or out of the UK. This enables internal traffickers (for example, those who move a victim from Belfast to London) to escape prosecution and leaves victims without adequate protection and recourse to justice.

At a policy level, as Amnesty International has highlighted, more needs to be done for victims of human trafficking. Currently the resources allocated, support networks available and training given to professionals concerning human trafficking is inadequate.

There is a lot of work still to be done. Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice (DoJ) is taking steps to address the grave situation that exists. Yet using a recent consultation document as a marker it is unlikely to be enough. In its consultation document the DoJ focused on amending current legislation. There are also plans to include human trafficking provisions within the proposed Criminal Justice Bill which completed its second stage in July 2012. Nevertheless, given the gravity of the situation and complexity of the issue the introduction of topic specific legislation would be more appropriate. Such an approach has been taken in Ireland and the United States of America with some level of success. It is also notable (and unfortunately unsurprising) that the DoJ has issued points which only focus on the mandatory elements of the Directive thus having little to no regard for the victim focused approach that is advocated within the 2011 EU Directive. In response to the concerns raised by civil society Lord Morrow has submitted the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) (Northern Ireland) Bill for the Assembly’s consideration. A measure which, if successful, Lord Morrow hopes will enable ‘proper implementation of the EU Trafficking Directive’ and bring our obligations into line with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Human trafficking is a complex crime which should not be taken lightly and every effort should be made to tackle its root causes and to implement efficient and effective systems of prevention and support. The 2011 EU Directive has forced Northern Ireland, in partnership with the rest of the United Kingdom, to take long overdue action. This action should be resolute and committed; it should not be one of submissive measures. This is a chance for Northern Ireland to leave behind its shadowy past in which human trafficking flourished. It is a chance for Northern Ireland to redeem its reputation by setting an example in the fight against human trafficking. It is a chance to create headlines to be proud of.


The QUB Human Rights Centre’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Human Trafficking submitted a consultation response to the Northern Ireland Department of Justice concerning amendment to Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) 2004 in June 2012. It is available here.