‘A modern scandal’: Justice Committee chairman expresses shock at latest figures on slavery in Northern Ireland

The chair of the Stormont Justice Committee says it is “a modern scandal” that the number of human trafficking victims rescued in Northern Ireland has almost trebled in just two years.

Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 3:01 pm

Mervyn Storey MLA was speaking after finding a sharp rise in the number of vulnerable people being rescued by authorities as suspected victims of human trafficking and then put through the official screening process, known as the National Referral Mechanism.

Mr Storey, who was recently moved from the Policing Board to chair the Assembly justice committee, said that one of the most striking things he has seen so far in his new position is the rise in vulnerable people being rescued.

He said that in 2018 there were 35 vulnerable people rescued by the authorities, almost doubling to 65 in 2019 and then surging even higher to 99 last year.

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PSNI officers lead a woman away during an operation to rescue victims of sex trafficking in the Lisburn Road area of Belfast. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Out of the 99 adults, 26 were suspected of being victims of sexual exploitation and 60 of being victims of slavery, servitude or forced compulsory labour. In addition, 20 children were found who were also suspected of being trafficking victims in NI.

“Given that human trafficking has been a significant focus for Northern Ireland since the assembly voted to pass Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill in 2014, you would expect there would be more progress in reducing these numbers,” the DUP man told the News Letter.

He says the Department of Justice has several “moving parts” of government to deal with the issue;- ‘Modern Slavery’ laws and related pieces of legislation, enforcement of the laws and the Border Agency.

“It is making sure they are working together as effectively as they possibly can to deal with this scourge on society,” he added. “We should be ashamed of ourselves in Northern Ireland in the 21st century that this form of modern slavery is growing so fast among us.

“We thought this was a problem of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But here we are in 2021 and we are still talking about modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking rising dramatically in Northern Ireland. It is a modern scandal.”

The Department of Justice was invited several times to respond, since Tuesday morning, but has so far offered no comment.

In February the JPI Media Investigations Team revealed that up to half of people convicted of modern slavery offences in NI are walking free from the courts with non-custodial sentences. While 344 potential victims of human trafficking were rescued from 2015-20, the number of traffickers brought to justice was only between seven and 10 - and only five of them were jailed.

The team also revealed that none of the victims rescued had been able to claim compensation they are legally entitled to, despite authorities seizing significant amounts of assets from the criminals who profit from their misery.

It was also discovered that a £1.3m exit programme for people coming out of the sex trade which was voted through by the Assembly in 2014 was later implemented as ‘a leaflet of helpline numbers’.

The UK-wide investigation was shortlisted for Private Eye’s prestigious Paul Foot Award last month, against entries from the Financial Times, Sunday Times and the Guardian.

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