State ‘has failed to protect victims trafficked to Ireland for sham marriages’

Dr Monica O’Connor calls for urgent reform of Ireland’s victim identification system

The State has repeatedly failed to protect victims trafficked to Ireland for sham marriages despite warnings from embassies and frontline services since 2009, a leading expert has said. File photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

The State has repeatedly failed to protect victims trafficked to Ireland for sham marriages despite warnings from embassies and frontline services since 2009, a leading expert has said. File photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

 

The State has repeatedly failed to protect victims trafficked to Ireland for sham marriages despite warnings from embassies and frontline services since 2009, a leading expert has said.

Dr Monica O’Connor’s comments come after the recent launch of the first-ever European report on exploitative sham marriage in Riga, Latvia.

The report is the result of two years of research by the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) and front-line services, NGOs, and national bodies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia.

The term sham marriage is typically used to describe an arranged marriage between non-EU and EU nationals in which one party gains a residency permit and the other financial payment.

The report states, however, that many women receive little more than food and accommodation when they arrive in Ireland, are closely monitored, and are subject to sexual and physical abuse.

Dr O’Connor, who co-wrote the Irish report, called for the urgent reform of our victim identification system, which, she says, has failed to protect victims since the Latvian and Estonian embassies first flagged concern in 2009.

Both embassies have documented a trend of young, poor, uneducated women coming to Ireland to marry non-EU nationals.

Many have a background of domestic violence, neglect, and sexual abuse. The Latvian embassy alone reported 233 potential trafficking victims between 2011 and 2014, presenting their findings to the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB).

The Irish authorities did not take action, as, according to the ICI’s legal expert, Catherine Cosgrave, the idea that someone would be trafficked for a sham marriage was “not on the radar” at the time.

“It would appear that they failed to recognise that there were indicators that women were being exploited,” she said, with embassies and services providers “effectively told to go away”.

Even if identified as victims, the right to support and protection, provided for by the Administrative Immigration Arrangements for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking, only applies to undocumented foreign nationals.

This essentially excludes EU nationals from accessing social protections, such as welfare support, private accommodation, and long-term recovery strategies.

This led the Latvian embassy to take it upon itself to help victims, even organising flights for them to return home.

“Very young women were arriving at the door of the embassy with nothing,” the embassy’s contribution to the report said.

“Often they were pregnant or had young children with them. Most of them just wanted to go home.”

As women leave Ireland without being identified as victims, the prospect of prosecution goes with them. “The witness and all of their testimony just leave the country,” said Dr O’Connor.

The Portuguese embassy also voiced concern to researchers that young vulnerable females from its country are at risk.

Portugal has been severely hit by the financial crisis and austerity measures and we believe young impoverished women might be easily deceived and recruited,” the embassy said.

This is confirmed by results from Operation Vantage, launched by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service in 2014 to investigate suspected sham marriages, which identified Portuguese women in over a quarter of cases between November 2014 and July 2015.

Earlier this week, the government launched the Second National Action Plan to Prevent and Combat Human Trafficking, outlining over 60 tasks to combat human trafficking in Ireland.

The plan, however, does not contain any specific action on exploitative sham marriage, with Cosgrave finding “absolutely no change in policy or legislation” since the issue was first raised. She did welcome a small rise in the number of potential victims referred by GNIB to the HSE’s Anti-Human Trafficking Team since the end of 2015.

There is concern, however, that potential victims are initially housed in direct provision centres, even if they are EU nationals.

“Is it suitable? No, of course not, and obviously, it is a location, a prime location, for re-recruiting,” Dr O’Connor said. “During the period of this research, two women were already re-recruited because they were in direct provision.”