Organised criminal gangs prostituting vulnerable women in Northern Ireland are set to move into the “lucrative” market in the Republic unless the Government introduces laws to tackle the sex industry.
Ruhama chief Sarah Benson made the claim after revealing the support group has witnessed a surge in women working or being forced to work in the hidden sector in recent months.
Speaking at the launch of the group’s annual report for 2013, she said last year Ruhama directly supported 305 women who were trying to get out of the sex industry — an 18% increase on 2012.
Of these, 83 women were trafficked from abroad and forced to work in brothels, most commonly from Brazil and Nigeria, with people from 36 countries involved in the illegal activity.
She said “organised criminal gangs” were increasingly entering the prostitution market as Ireland was “too lucrative” an area to ignore.
Repeating previously stated calls by the group to tackle the issue at its root, the Ruhama official called on the Government to introduce new laws to criminalise the person buying sex instead of the prostitute.
Legislation on these grounds has recently been introduced in Northern Ireland in a bid to tackle the issue in the province.
However, Ms Benson said if similar laws were not implemented in the Republic as well, the Northern Ireland situation would result in organised criminal gangs moving over the border to continue their operations.
“The fact is it is an all-island issue, and there is no real border there. They’re simply going to just move south. We have been campaigning tirelessly for over a decade for legislative change to tackle demand and fill the loopholes in the laws which allow organised criminal gangs to operate with impunity.”
Ireland’s prostitution laws are based on the 1993 sexual offences act, which focuses on the soliciting of prostitution in a public place.
Ruhama and other anti-prostitution officials — including Labour senator Ivana Bacik, who launched yesterday’s report on behalf of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald after the cabinet member was stranded by a storm after attending an Interpol meeting in France — have described the current law as “deeply flawed”.
However, during an Oireachtas justice committee public consultation report on proposed new prostitution laws earlier this year, some sex workers said the potential reform will push the industry further underground and make it even more dangerous for women.
Responding to the argument Ruhama chairperson, Valerie Judge, said it was not possible to “regulate the harm” out of the sex trade.
While declining to criticise the image one prostitute, Kate McGrew, gave of the industry on RTÉ show Connected, Ms Benson said she is still struggling with one case involving a girl who turned 18 and who Ruhama recently tried to help.
Ms Benson said the girl was found in a brothel by gardaí after recently being trafficked from eastern Europe. The girl was initially insistent she wanted to go home, but when she called her family it emerged they had sold her into prostitution and that she had “no choice”.
“She went back. She was moved, we lost contact. That girl was sold into prostitution,” Ms Benson said.
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