Laura* arrived in Ireland in 2010. Today, she still struggles to talk about the years before she came and those that came afterwards when she was left with no choice but to work as a prostitute to survive.
The mother of two had already spent five years working in prostitution in Holland before being trafficked to Ireland. In Holland, she had hoped to build a life but her asylum claim was rejected.
“That part of my life, I block it out. I don’t discuss it at all and told no friends or family about what I was doing. I was trafficked for 10 years, it was the worst time of my life.
“I lived in fear and and darkness, not just for myself but for my kids back home. I was a broken person,” said Laura, who now mentors for women who have left prostitution through a programme run by the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
She left Cameroon in the early 2000s after her partner died in a car accident. A trained nurse, Laura says her partner's brother promised he could get her work in Europe so she could continue to support her children.
However, once she had arrived in Holland, she discovered she was expected to sell her body for money. This she did while she waited for a decision by the Dutch authorities on her asylum application.
I was scared if I tried to leave he would attack my family back home
When it was rejected, her trafficker moved her to Ireland.
“He promised I would not be deported because I was undocumented, so no one would know I was here.”
She met most of her “clients” in the house where she lived, though she was also brought to rural areas to meet men. Worries about her children and mother’s safety in Cameroon stopped her from alerting the authorities.
“I didn’t want to do anything that might annoy the smuggler. I was scared if I tried to leave he would attack my family back home,” she told The Irish Times, saying she was speaking now to encourage others.
Three years later, she met and fell in love with an Irish man. Three years further on, they decided to marry after they were advised that they might be able to marry in Northern Ireland, even though she was undocumented.
However, on the day of the wedding, Laura was arrested. While in detention in Newry, she called her trafficker for advice. When he said he would move her to Switzerland, Laura hung up the phone.
She was released after five days. Once back in Dublin, and had reunited with her partner, she went to the Rape Crisis Centre, who referred her onto Ruhama – an NGO working with women affected by prostitution.
Soon, she was brought to the Balseskin direct provision centre in Finglas. When gardaí came to take a statement, Laura was immediately uncomfortable, fearing deportation, though Ruhama reassured her.
I would tell other women to trust the people here who are trying to help them
She spent six months in Balseskin, and never felt safe once, fearing that her trafficker would find her. Later, she was given a temporary residence permit and a flat in Clondalkin.
Back home, her children are now at university, while she has completed a course in nursing at Ballyfermot College and is now studying at Trinity College while working as a healthcare assistant.
“When I was in Holland I was always scared of the police; they don’t have empathy. I see that empathy with the Irish police. I would tell other women to trust the people here who are trying to help them. Even the police.”
Ireland’s system of identifying trafficking victims must be improved, says Dr Nusha Yonkova, gender and anti-trafficking expert with the Immigrant Council. Housing such victims in direct provision centres is “grossly inappropriate” and impedes people’s recovery, she argues, saying they should be taken care of separately.
*Pseudonym used to protect speaker’s identity