It’s time for Ireland to turn off the red light

The country owes it to the victims to bring in laws that crminalise those who buy sex and traffic in women rather than the people they exploit, says Lauren Hersh

IRYNA, a college student, was 18 when she was lured into the sex trade in New York City by her “boyfriend”, who promised to love her and care for her. Instead he beat her, repeatedly raped her and sold her into prostitution.

But Iryna’s trafficker was not the only one who caused her significant harm. Sex buyers, who also viciously abused her physically, sexually and emotionally, made the selling of Iryna a very lucrative business for her trafficker.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the scourge of human trafficking is destroying the lives of women and girls. In New York, women like Iryna are sold and bought by traffickers and buyers, who until now have acted with impunity. The situation in Dublin is no different. Irish sex trade survivors, like author of Paid For Rachel Moran, describe the repeated rapes and relentless violence faced at the hands of exploiters, most of whom were never held accountable.

But the tide is turning. In Europe and beyond, there is a growing recognition that although responding to human trafficking situations is important, prevention is key. Without consumers of commercial sex, traffickers would lack the financial incentive to sell victims. To effectively eliminate sex trafficking, traffickers and buyers must be held criminally accountable, while victims must be provided with exit strategies from prostitution and services.

In Sweden, the enforcement of laws known as the Nordic model, where traffickers and purchasers of prostitution are criminalized and people in prostitution are given services, has proven successful. Since its implementation in 1999, Sweden has reported a decrease in street prostitution and sex trafficking. Norway has also seen a significant decline in both street and indoor prostitution just a few years after initiating the model.

Recognizing the success of the Nordic model and the importance of targeting demand, parliaments of the EU and the Council of Europe have adopted resolutions recommending that member states adopt the model. In the United States, jurisdictions are recognizing that in order to end sex trafficking, demand for commercial sex must be reduced. In Chicago and Boston, widespread sex buyer operations have been implemented by law enforcement to eliminate the exploitative and violent sex trade and eradicate sex trafficking. In New York, the increased crackdown on sex buyers by police and prosecutors underscores the notion that if no one were buying sex, traffickers would not be selling people.

Many have been watching Ireland from abroad these last several years, hopeful that it too would join the countries successfully tackling this problem by going after the buyer who participates in the exploitation.

Two and a half years ago when the then justice minister, Alan Shatter, announced a government review of the laws on prostitution, many were optimistic that this would be a swift, just and important change. Instead, it has been a slow, yet meaningful process.

Last June, the Oireachtas justice committee unanimously backed sex buyer laws and set out a blueprint for the Government to follow.

After 800 written submissions and six months of hearings during which senior gardaí made clear that Irish prostitution is run by gangs “foreign and domestic”, the committee made it’s call. The proceeds of these crime have been included in the national accounts which confirm that prostitution is part of a €1.2bn-a-year racket.

Survivors and more than 70 organisations which support the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign continue to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that criminalizes traffickers and buyers, not the people they exploit. And it they are in good company. Last week, Frances Fitzgerald, the justice minister, stated: “If the demand for the services of victims can be reduced, and hopefully eliminated, the business model of trafficking can be significantly undermined.”

As the EU marks its annual Anti-Trafficking Day I am honored to be in Dublin where I will share a platform with Ms Fitzgerald at an event hosted by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. I hope that together we can embark on the next step of this process.

We owe it to the victims, many of whom have bravely come forward to relive their stories of abuse and exploitation before the justice committee to bring what has been a long-running process towards a conclusion.

The commitment of Ms Fitzgerald to legislate is a very welcome sign as is her expressed interest in introducing measures to reduce demand — the next logical step is the introduction of laws targeting the buyers of sex.

The world is watching events in Ireland. It’s time we stopped tolerating sex trafficking and the violence inherent in the sex trade. It’s time for Ireland to turn off the red light and make the Emerald Isle an undesirable destination for traffickers and exploiters.

Lauren Hersh is director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy of the Sanctuary for Families in New York. Previously she also served as a Prosecutor covering Brooklyn and was a chief of the one of the first sex trafficking units in the US.

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