An academic from Queen’s University Belfast has challenged claims being made about the extent of human trafficking in Northern Ireland.
Dr Graham Ellison from the university’s School of Law says there have only been four proven victims of sex trafficking and three of forced labour, since figures were first published for Northern Ireland in January 2012.
The National Referral Mechanism figures come as a controversial DUP bill is debated in Stormont which could criminalise men who pay for sex, in a bid to tackle trafficking.
Dr Ellison acknowledges there may have been more victims, as they must volunteer to be identified as such. But he points to an Institute of Social Research report several years ago which found a lot of attention in Northern Ireland on sexual exploitation at the expense of labour exploitation.
The PSNI say that sexual exploitation is still the largest type of trafficking here. But Dr Ellison is sceptical.
“I just wonder though if that is because the public and media discourse has focused their attention on the sexual exploitation more, so they have been looking for that more?” he said. “I am not disputing that human trafficking exists. What I think potentially might be happening more here is human smuggling, which is the movement of people from a poor country to a rich country to find work.” This can be accompanied with poor working conditions and poor wages, he added.
In December 2011 the PSNI showed the Policing Board a photograph of a brothel bedroom door in Belfast with the lock on the outside. Police pointed out marks on the inside which they said showed someone had tried to claw their way out. Dr Ellison has investigated the story.
“I could show you my living room door,” he said. “You might think I have had a trafficking victim there, with the cat scratching the door. I am not being funny. The blood tests [and DNA from the door] were of someone that disappeared in England. I am not disputing that happened. I am just suspicious.”
Organised Crime Branch chief DCS Roy McComb says there are immigrants voluntarily in prostitution, but also “significant” numbers that don’t know what country they are in and therefore cannot be here by consent. Dr Ellison is sceptical.
“Without knowing how many people – the PSNI says ‘significant’ – I don’t know what that number can mean,” he said.
He is critical of organisations aiming to “rescue” women from prostitution, which he dubs “the rescue industry”. He added: “I think there are vested interests tied up with this.”
“I am a bit sceptical of the number of smaller organisations popping up all over the place that have anti-trafficking at their core and which get state funding and which seem to exist for propagating this myth or something.”
He would like to see state-regulated brothels which he believes would weed out pimps with criminal records, as in Berlin.
Asked how the public should choose which experts to believe on the subject of prostitution and trafficking, he had a simple answer.
“I don’t think that the research from advocacy groups, with an abolitionist [anti-prostitution] perspective, is very rigorous,” he said. “And of course I think mine is very rigorous.”
Dr Ellison was awarded a grant in May to begin his first piece of research on prostitution. With the help of other academics, he is comparing regulatory models of prostitution in Berlin, Prague, Belfast and Manchester as part of a study relating to Lord Morrow’s bill.
So far he has interviewed 20-25 women whom they have contacted through “sex worker activist groups”.
Asked how many human trafficking victims he has interviewed, he replied: “I have not spoken to any because I am not sure we would ever get ethics permission to do this. I am not totally convinced that the victims of human trafficking are victims of human trafficking in the strict technical sense. I fully accept they may be here under duress, under really bad working conditions and whatever.”
He estimates there are around 10 mainly street based male escorts in Belfast and up to 30 women.
Advertising online he says there are around 500 women in Northern Ireland, mainly in Belfast, Newry and Londonderry “who have been available for sex work appointments over past two year period”. Only around 20-30 are available on any given day, he says, though a small number are duplicate adverts.
Only five online escorts are registered as permanently residing in Belfast. The others are mobile and move around the British Isles, he says.
The PSNI yesterday confirmed that the photographs from the Belfast brothel were “obtained during a human trafficking operation in Northern Ireland in the last number of years”.
Asked about the number of proven victims from Northern Ireland, they referred the News Letter to the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC), a division of the Serious Orgaanised Crime Agency.
While the PSNI refers suspected victims to the UKHTC, it is that organisation which processes them to assess the veracity of their stories, under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).
Asked for specific figures on victims from Northern Ireland, a spokesman for the UKHTC referred the News Letter to a list of documents and tables on its website.
“Please do look at the strategic assessment under the UKHTC however they are not broken down regionally,” he said.
Dr Ellison conducted his own survey of the website to come up with his figure of seven proven victims from Northern Ireland since specific figures for the region were first published in January 2012.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which has done extensive work to tackle human trafficking in Northern Ireland, said 17 suspected victims have been referred to the NRM/UKHTC since the start of April 2013. Six were found not to be victims, one has been confirmed as a victim and ten cases are pending.
He was unable to give the total number of proven victims ever recorded from Northern Ireland and also referred the News Letter to the UKHTC for further information.
Lord Morrow said yesterday that despite the low number of victims cited by Dr Ellision, there have been significantly more human trafficking victims in Northern Ireland than officially recorded.
The Government, police, UK Human Trafficking Centre and NGOs all say there are many more trafficking victims than found in official National Referral Mechanism (NRM) figures, Lord Morrow said.
“Indeed SOCA/UKHTC note that many victims are so tightly controlled by their traffickers that there a few opportunities for them to come into contact with those who could identify them,” he said.
And although people must volunteer to be counted as victims, many do not; this was borne out, he said, in the UKHTC Strategic Assessment in 2012, which said 65 per cent of probable victims were not assessed.
He also noted that the lead PSNI officer on human trafficking, DS Philip Marshall, cited a study to the News Letter in the past month which suggested 30-40 per cent of 30,000 English and Welsh escorts may have been trafficked.
The DUP MLA said that anecdotally, rescued victims also tell of “hundreds” more trafficking victims who have not been rescued.
Amnesty International Northern Ireland’s Grainne Teggart, who leads the organisation’s regional campaign against human trafficking and provides the secretariat for the Stormont All Party Group on Human Trafficking, said she too was dissatisfied with the official figures.
‘’Amnesty International recognises Human Trafficking in Northern Ireland as a serious human rights issue, at the core of our work on this is the protection and promotion of the rights of victims of trafficking,” she said. “There are problems with the National Referral Mechanism which need to be addressed. We are also aware that not every human trafficking victim opts to go through the national referral mechanism.’’
DUP peer Lord Morrow has proposed hotly contested legislation which would criminalise men who pay for sex, based on a Swedish law enacted in 1999.
He believes it will help tackle human trafficking in Northern Ireland.
But Dr Ellison said: “The [Morrow] bill is premised on what to my mind is the very narrow, under researched and under evidenced workings of the so-called Swedish model.”
He finds it difficult to see how the buyer can be criminalised without doing the same to the seller.
The Swedish law was championed by a coalition of feminists and Christians, which he said is exactly the same as what is happening with Lord Morrow’s bill.
“Typically one wants the law passed to challenge male patriarchy and the other to protect established family values.”
Instead the bill should focus, he said, on helping women in street prostitution and provide exit strategies, but only for those who want out.
The streets are where there are problems relating to violent pimping, homelessness, family breakdown, mental health and drugs, he said, however these are not caused by prostitution itself. The bill should also focus more on providing help for victims of forced labour, he said.