Will Ireland become a soft touch for traffickers?


Could the UK's tough new legislation tackling sex trafficking see criminals move here to take advantage of our less stringent laws? HELEN KINSELLAreports.

EARLIER THIS month Ruhama, a voluntary organisation working to help women involved in prostitution, launched a television advertising campaign aimed at men who solicit sex from victims of trafficking in Ireland.

The message coincides with a growing movement around Europe seeking to end the sex trade in efforts to curb the phenomenon of trafficking.

In the UK, new legislation has just been introduced cracking down on "clients" of prostitutes as part of its efforts to tackle prostitution and sex trafficking.

The legislation, published this week by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, which was greeted with outrage by groups such as the English Collective of Prostitutes and by cheers from activists working on trafficking, may have ramifications in Ireland.

The new law outlaws paying for sex "controlled for another person's gain" in England and Wales. The legislation fell short of a total ban on prostitution because of insufficient public support.

Under current legislation in Britain, buying or selling sex is not illegal, but other activities related to prostitution are, such as soliciting, kerb-crawling and pimping.

Smith said she wanted men to think twice about paying for sex, arguing that trafficked women don't have a choice and men do.

"I am determined to shift the focus onto the sex buyer, the person responsible for creating the demand for prostitution markets, which in turn creates demand for the vile trade of women being trafficked for sexual exploitation," Smith said. "There will be no more excuses for those who pay for sex. This new criminal offence of paying for sex with someone who is trafficked or pimped will apply even if the buyer claims he did not know the woman was being controlled for gain."

Under the proposed changes, a man who pays for sex with a prostitute who has been trafficked or is being pimped will get a criminal record and could be liable for a fine of up to £1,000.

Not knowing that the prostitute had been trafficked or was being pimped will not be a defence in court.

Similar legislation exists in Ireland in the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act, which came into force in June this year. The Act, which makes human trafficking an offence, includes a provision that makes it illegal to "solicit or importune" a trafficked person for the purpose of prostitution.

A person found guilty of paying for sexual services with a victim of trafficking will be liable for a fine of up to €5,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.

Unlike the UK legislation, Irish law does not criminalise those who have paid for sex with a woman controlled by a pimp, while it also provides for a defence for the accused to prove that he or she did not know that the person involved was trafficked.

The British government has increasingly been seeking new measures to tackle the industry. Those answers have been sought further afield in Europe. Ten months ago, a high-level delegation led by Vernon Coaker, minister of state for policing, crime and security, travelled to Sweden to assess its unique position on prostitution. In 1999, Sweden introduced laws that criminalised the purchase or attempted purchase of sex in an attempt to reduce levels of prostitution and trafficking.

"It is crucial to tackle demand," says Nusha Yonkova of the Immigrant Council of Ireland. "It has been recognised internationally that this is one of the most important tools to tackle trafficking. The Council of Europe's Convention on Trafficking has even dedicated an Article to it. I think that is more progressive. If a man in Ireland buys sex from a person who is controlled and exploited but doesn't fall under the definition of trafficking, he is not committing any offence whatsoever. I think it will be more difficult to obtain conviction in Ireland with respect to trafficked victims."

Ruhama also believes Irish policies are lagging behind.

"The last time the Irish government looked at prostitution was in 1993 and it's completely different today," Geraldine Rowley of Ruhama says. "We didn't have the internet then, and we didn't have the extent of women being brought in here. We would advocate that we would follow Sweden and criminalise across the board the purchase of sexual services."

Munster MEP Colm Burke, who is developing a pilot project in secondary schools in Cork aimed at "sensitising" young people to the phenomenon of human trafficking, maintains the new UK proposals "would shift the focus onto sex buyers because they create the demand for the trafficking of women for sex."

But with the UK clamping down and introducing increasingly stringent legislation, coupled with freedom of movement between EU countries, and trafficked women reportedly transiting between Ireland and the UK, what might the consequences be for Ireland?

Campaigners point out that if the Irish Government does not similarly extend its legislation, the country may be seen as a "soft touch".

"It is logical to expect that if the discouragement really works in the UK that there might be customers willing to travel to Ireland, where the policy is softer," Yonkova pointed out. "Reports have emerged of higher levels of transit through Sweden and higher levels of prostitution in adjacent countries. Ideally the countries should synchronise their efforts, especially those like the UK and Ireland that are so closely positioned."

Rowley, while welcoming the new measures on trafficking in Ireland, agrees. "Changes to the UK legislation on prostitution may have an impact on Ireland because of our close proximity. Criminals already operating in the sex trade in the UK may look to Ireland as a soft touch and take advantage of the lack of legislation here."

The biggest current concern for Irish activists remains the protections given to trafficked women, who may be undocumented once they have been identified or come forward, particularly in the context of immigration policy.

"There is still no law that protects victims," Yonkova said. "In order to be successful, efforts to combat trafficking have to both criminalise the criminals and protect victims."

Ireland's Human Trafficking Bill is just the beginning. If legislation in England and Wales has the potential to create impact here, the Government should brace itself for a number of battles ahead.