Experts have warned that the type of sex trafficking which Prince Andrew has been linked to is prevalent in towns and villages across Northern Ireland.
BBC Panorama broadcast an interview this week with Virginia Giuffre, who claimed she was trafficked to London by Jeffrey Epstein and forced to sleep with the duke when she was only 17. Andrew categorically denies her claims.
Women’s Aid Chief Executive Kelly Andrews said that while she would not comment on that specific case, the PSNI regularly bring sex trafficking victims to her organisation for refuge after raiding brothels.
“It is very much a live issue within Northern Ireland, much as we would like to think it goes on in other places,” she told the News Letter. “There would be women trafficked from Africa, Thailand, eastern Europe, all nationalities, and it goes on in our towns and villages and cities.”
Victims are controlled with fear and threats against their families, she said.
“The PSNI have previously found local men trafficking young women, who were previously in the care system, into brothels here. So it is not just foreign gangs, it is local men as well.”
‘Anna’ was trafficked from London to brothels in NI by a Romanian gang, with her story told in a BBC film ‘Doing Money’ last year, and in the book ‘Slave’ by Jason Johnson.
“Human predators are everywhere and you have to watch out for them because they don’t care what they destroy as long as they get their selfish egos satisfied,” she told the News Letter.
“What happens with millions of victims is that because they haven’t had a strong or proveable story in perfect pitch detail, justice has never been served. The system has failed them.
“I would like to say one more time that trafficking exists and affects both society and the public, whether people accept it or not. Slavery is very real and dangerous; innocent people are taken advantage off and the real perpetrators escape.
“The reality is that the real face of trafficking is horrible. It brings out the most unimaginable and horrendous stories that people in society can’t imagine or believe. It is heartbreaking to see that the survivors have to go through hell to be able to have a chance to live. Many trafficking victims disappear from the face of the planet. But for others, when they do get a small glimpse of happiness, society kills their voice because they are weak and in despair.”
The PSNI rescued 22 suspected sex trafficking victims in NI last year, most of them female.
Yesterday, detectives from the PSNI’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit arrested two men in the Ballymena area.
A 33-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of three counts of human trafficking for sexual exploitation; controlling prostitution for gain; converting criminal property and a number of motoring offences.
An 18-year-old man was also arrested on suspicion of money laundering and controlling prostitution.
Police conducted searches of properties in Ballymena and Belfast yesterday. Both men remain in custody.
The operation follows the arrest of five men last week on suspicion of paying for sexual services, a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. A file on these five arrests is being prepared for the Public Prosecution Services.
Detective Inspector Mark Bell said: “These arrests are part of a proactive investigation into human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland.
“Sexual exploitation is often an unseen crime - often victims are transported to clients’ properties so there may not be the obvious case of men coming and going to the one property. Furthermore, many victims can be afraid to speak out or may be being held captive. However, for some people who are subject to this kind of exploitation, they may not think of themselves as victims. They may be vulnerable and have been manipulated into having sex for money, often controlled and coerced into passing over some of the profits to another person who ultimately lines their pockets as a result of the exploitation.
“I want to appeal to victims to come forward to police. I want you to get the help and support that you need. Perhaps you are in this position but don’t think that you are being exploited. I’d urge you to have a think about the people around you and if there is anyone who is pushing you in a certain direction or financially benefiting from your activities, please make contact with the police.
“I also want the public to be aware of the signs to look out for. Maybe you have concern for a friend or someone you know who is being put under pressure to provide sexual services and made to feel that they have no choice. They may be keeping anti-social hours and be driven around by someone they won’t let you get to know. There could be obvious signs that the person is being controlled, such as a lack of access to their money.
“Whilst the sale of sex in itself is not a crime in Northern Ireland, it is a criminal offence to purchase sex. I want to make it very clear – if you are paying for sexual services, you are committing a crime. Do you really want to be getting a knock on the door from police, perhaps having to explain to family and friends why you have been arrested? I want to encourage anyone who purchases sex to think of the consequences. Furthermore, you cannot be sure that the person providing the services has not been forced to or trafficked to make a profit for the person controlling them.
“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.
“We are committed to protecting victims and targeting those who exploit or cause harm. We are working as hard as we can but we cannot tackle this problem alone. We rely on our strong working relationships with a range of partners but we need the public’s help. I would also ask people to contact us with any concerns that they may have by calling 999 if it’s an emergency, or 101. There’s also a Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.”
In 2017 the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner visited NI and told the News Letter that foreign nationals - and UK citizens - are being exploited in full-blown slavery in every town and city across the UK.
Kevin Hyland was visiting on Anti-Slavery Day to support a new Department of Justice campaign running in partnership with public and private organisations.
One of his biggest challenges had remained constant in his eight years in the post, he said: “It is to convince everybody of the seriousness of this issue and the prevalence of it.”
“We are starting to get more and more evidence that this is occurring in every town and city in the UK.”
He said the main types of slavery today are:
• Forced labour - in agriculture, car washes, nail bars and the fishing industry
• Forced shoplifting, cannabis farming and begging
• Sexual exploitation of women, young men and boys
• Domestic servitude - often in very wealthy houses
He had met many British women who have been traded for sexual exploitation across the UK from from they were 13 until 19.
“I have gone into brothels and everyone in there has said these are normal brothels’ and then you find a woman hiding in the cupboard who has lived in that building for six months and had to have sex every single day with a number of men,” he said.
Over the whole of the last financial year the PSNI rescued 59 suspected victims of all types of human trafficking. This year 72 potential victims have already been rescued during the first eight months.
Freedom of Information research by the News Letter has revealed that from 2015, traffickers have been arrested and victims recovered from council areas including Antrim and Newtownabbey, Mid and East Antrim, Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon, Belfast, Londonderry and Strabane, Newry Mourne and Down, Mid Ulster and Lisburn and Castlereagh.
Anyone with suspicions can call 999 in an emergency, 101 or use the Modern Slavery Helpline 08000 121 700.