Police have rescued 20 potential victims of human trafficking and arrested three men as part of a probe into labour exploitation.
The 20 Romanian victims were rescued at various stages since last Wednesday at two locations in county Armagh. The 14 men and 6 women range in age from 20 to 48.
Police have liaised with the UK Human Trafficking Centre and a number of agencies to ensure the victims are safe and translators have been flown to Northern Ireland from England to cope with the number of victims involved and the volume of information which needs to be processed.
The three suspects, aged 23, 27 and 31 have been arrested in counties Armagh and Antrim during the course of the investigation. They are being questioned at the Serious Crime Suite at Antrim police station on suspicion of human trafficking, forced labour and slavery and money laundering. Two properties have been searched and three vehicles seized.
Detectives from Organised Crime Branch have also been liaising with the Gangmaster Licensing Authority as part of their investigations which are linked to food production.
Detective Inspector Todd Clements from Organised Crime Branch said: “This has been a fast-moving and complex operation which may continue for some time. The 20 people we have identified as potential victims of human trafficking for labour exploitation are in places of safety now. Our inquiries are continuing.”
Police said there is “no suggestion” that any employers have been complicit in any trafficking or labour exploitation, but were unable to give any further clarification on the issue.
Justice Minister David Ford congratulated the police on the rescue of 20 potential victims.
He said: “The trafficking of a human being for profit is a heinous crime and should not be tolerated in any community.
“I welcome the action by the PSNI which has led to the rescue of 20 potential victims of human trafficking in Co Armagh and would urge all members of the community to be vigilant to this terrible crime.
“Anyone with information or concerns about potential human trafficking should immediately contact either the Crimestoppers charity on 0800 555 111 or the PSNI directly.”
Lord Morrow has welcomed the rescue of 20 potential victims but warned that in his view, the matter sends a clear message that tighter legislation is required.
The DUP peer currently has a bill passing through the assembly which would, if passed, make it a criminal offence to pay for sex, which he believes will reduce demand for trafficked women in the sex trade.
He said: “The PSNI are to be commended for this action which I understand has been underway since last week. I am advised all those rescued are Romanian – 14 men and six women – and they are now in places of safety. In addition, extra translators have been flown to Northern Ireland from London to assist.
“The potential victims are believed to have been engaged in forced labour within the food production sector in County Armagh. How they arrived in Northern Ireland has yet to be established, but it is my understanding three males have been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, money laundering and slavery.
“I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the investigation, but I will be closely monitoring this situation.
“However, it is impossible to avoid the fact that Northern Ireland has been seen by those behind this incident as a hot-spot for slavery and the degradation of human beings through forced labour for financial gain.
“That is deeply troubling and something which I remain committed to eradicating through my Private Member’s Bill. For now, I take comfort from this swift action by PSNI which has freed 20 potential victims from slavery.
“The three main objectives of my Bill are to tackle the scourge of human trafficking, ensure support mechanisms are in place for victims and tougher sentences for those responsible. I remain convinced current laws are insufficient to deal with this appalling and inhuman crime.”
Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaigner with Amnesty International, also commended “the determination of the PSNI to tackle human trafficking in Northern Ireland”.
She added: “Human Trafficking is a grave abuse of human rights taking various forms including forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. It is vital that all those responsible for such heinous crimes are brought to justice”.
UUP MLA for Newry and Armagh Danny Kennedy said: “I am shocked and appalled to hear that 20 people may have been trafficked to County Armagh. Those responsible are parasites on our society. The PSNI and other agencies must be applauded for their patient investigation which has led to the rescue of these vulnerable people from a modern form of enslavement and cruel exploitation. If anyone has any information regarding those responsible, they should inform the PSNI immediately.”
In December Minister Ford told the News Letter there had been 37 confirmed human trafficking victims in Northern Ireland since 2009 – 26 in sexual exploitation, eight in forced labour, two in domestic servitude and one from ‘unknown’ origins.
However the authorities dealing with such victims agree that there are likely to be more who have not been detected or who are too scared to testify against their traffickers.