The PSNI has arrested six men suspected of buying sex and passed files on a total of 10 men to the Public Prosecution Service.
The creation of the controversial offence was voted through by a majority of MLAs in 2014 in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act. It came into force in June 2015.
In November the PSNI said that despite making two arrests it had decided not to seek prosecutions – for an unspecified period – in order to “allow time for understanding and awareness” of the new law.
However, the PSNI has now confirmed that it has sent files on 10 men to the PPS.
Detective Chief Inspector Douglas Grant, from Serious Crime Branch, said: “The sex business in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the Republic and Great Britain, is assessed to involve a mixture of organised crime groups and women acting individually.
“The current size of this industry and its various elements is difficult to verify but it is of sufficient volume to be a matter of concern to PSNI and subject to ongoing investigations.”
He added: “In relation to paying for sexual services, there have been six arrests while five other suspects who were not arrested had reports about them sent to PPS. Of those suspects who were arrested, one was released unconditionally and five were reported to PPS.”
Jan Melia, CEO of Women’s Aid, said: “We would see this as a positive step and move on from the position last year whereby officers were not seeking prosecutions in these cases.”
She added: “The law can help women who have been coerced into prostitution or women who have been trafficked and it is vital that it is used to good effect.”
But academic Dr Jay Levy, who has studied the sex buyer law in Sweden, strongly disagreed.
The offence, he said, “displaces sex workers into clandestine space, which increases the distance between sex workers and service and health care providers, as well as police protection”.
The prosecution of sex buyers, he added, is not demonstrated to reduce levels of sex work as such legislation aims to do, and it also discourages sex-buying men from reporting abuse and trafficking.
Solicitor Ciarán Moynagh, who is representing sex worker Laura Lee in her legal challenge against the new law, said the 10 referrals to the PPS show that the police had insufficient evidence to achieve an overnight charge or standard 28-day charge to court.
“It will be interesting to see whether charges ever arise and if so what type of evidence supports the case,” he added.
In 2014 the proposed sex buyer offence was strongly opposed by Amnesty International, several Alliance MLAs, Justice Minister David Ford, QUB academic Graham Ellison and sex industry representatives, including Laura Lee.
It was supported by Women’s Aid, the Human Rights Commission, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with positive feedback from Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and qualified support from the PSNI.
The PSNI Human Trafficking Unit screened 252 people for trafficking in 2015/16 and recovered 59 potential victims. Of those recovered 34 people were linked to labour exploitation and 25 to sexual exploitation.
Those recovered included 35 males and 24 females. Eleven were children.
Their nationalities included 17 Bulgarian, eight Romanian, five Hungarian, five Chinese, five British (Northern Ireland), four Lithuanian, two Albanian, two Ugandan, two Vietnamese and two from Iran. Other nationalities include Pakistani, Malaysian, Nigerian, Somalian, South African, Algerian and Syrian.
In March Chief Constable George Hamilton said there are currently eight human trafficking officers and 16 live investigations.