Once again, the grim reality of sex trafficking and prostitution as a violent, abusive, and exploitative criminal enterprise has been beamed into our sitting rooms.
The horrors portrayed in last night’s RTÉ Investigates programme may seem distant and remote but as a frontline organisation and independent law centre which supports and represents victims of sex trafficking, we can confirm this is a crime which reaches every county.
The experiences outlined on television are ones which have been retold by women in the Dublin office of the Immigrant Council of Ireland over and over again.
Typically as teenagers, they are tricked into coming to Ireland with promises of a new life, a job, or even marriage. Normally they are in the country just a few hours when the reality dawns: There is no dream life, they have landed in a nightmare. The girls have been sold into prostitution and what lies ahead is a life of being moved around the country to pop-up brothels on a daily basis to be raped by sex buyers.
Since the Immigrant Council of Ireland starting working in this area, we have supported more than 60 women — 19 in the past year.
The indications are this crime, which is already second only to drug smuggling, is expanding and growing.
This latest RTÉ report joins a long list of investigations into the sex ‘trade’ by both broadcast and print media, including the Irish Examiner. Not a single one of the investigations has ended with a happy story to tell.
It is nearly four years since Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded to a similar investigation by promising action.
Since that commitment, there have been a lot of political activity, debates, and promises. A full Oireachtas review on prostitution gave unanimous backing for laws to end demand for these crimes, a new Sex Crimes Bill has been drafted, and a debate has been held in the Seanad.
Northern Ireland has gone further and introduced the laws, prompting a surge in online prostitution activity south of the border.
While our politicians are moving slowly in the right direction, the stark reality is that it remains as easy and lucrative for pimps, traffickers, and thugs to operate in our communities now as it was four year ago.
Estimates on how much organised crime pockets from Ireland vary but it is agreed that the figure is somewhere in the range of €180m-€250m — money then used to fund even more criminal activity on our streets.
As the Government enters its final weeks and months, there is still time to honour the commitment to cut the cash flowing in to the pockets of organised crime by turning the Sex Crimes Bill into reality.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald must act now. The bill which was published and initially debated in the Seanad two months ago must be advanced as a matter of urgency.
Not only do sex-buyer laws enjoy cross-political support, they are also backed by the 73 Irish organisations, with 1.6m members, that make up the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign. The groups represent every part of Irish life and include doctors, nurses, business representatives, trade unionists, children’s rights groups, survivors of prostitution, and many more.
The laws also enjoy the support of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and are a reality not just in Northern Ireland but in countries from Sweden to Canada — with France also expected to follow suit in 2016.
In contrast, those countries which allow legal prostitution are regretting their mistakes — it has turned Amsterdam into the European hub of human trafficking, brought mega-brothels to Germany, and in New Zealand the same laws allow child sex traffickers escape with community service.
Doing nothing is no longer an option. By failing to act, the message we are sending out to a multibillion-euro organised crime network is that Ireland is a soft target where brothels can thrive.
The blacked-out images of women retelling the horror of a life in prostitution have become a staple of the television schedule.
The anonymous Eastern European, African, and South American voices tell a story of a criminal network which stretches from their home towns into our cities, towns and villages. Their story may start in an airport in Bucharest, Lagos, or Buenos Aires, but it ends in a brothel above a chip shop, pub, or bookies on an Irish street.
We owe it to these women to shut down this crime. The best way to do that is to follow the money and wreck the business model for their pimp bosses.