Gardaí said they are stepping up efforts to tackle human trafficking across the country, after it carried it out two days of action targeting crime gangs.
Properties in Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Longford, Galway, Kildare, Donegal and Louth were searched.
As part of the operation, 46 people were identified as having allegedly purchased sexual services from an individual involved in prostitution.
The search comes after a group of experts at the Council of Europe expressed concern about the number of human trafficking convictions in Ireland in September.
The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (Greta) said the number of trafficking victims fell from 103 in 2017 to 44 in 2021.
Detective Superintendent Derek Maguire, of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB), said that while gardaí are currently working with similar figures this year, he believes there are more victims in Ireland.
Det Supt Maguire said the two days of action predominantly targeted the purchases of sex and carrying out safeguarding checks on people involved in the sex industry.
“We carried out 65 safeguarding visits with a view to eliminating the possibility of sexual exploitation and during those safeguarding visits we talked to and gave advice to 112 individual sex workers,” he added.
“During the two days we also executed five search warrants in relation to the organisation of prostitution.
“Some €3,000 was seized from one individual and $500 in cash from a man in the south-eastern region of the country who was suspected of being involved in organised prostitution.”
Furthermore, gardaí are following a direct line of enquiry after a liaison officer attached to the Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit was contacted by an individual sex worker who is the victim of assault by a client.
Enquiries are also ongoing after an individual working in the sex trade made contact with a local garda station to express their concern for several women believed to be trafficked for sexual exploitation following a safeguarding visit from a member of the gardaí in the South West.
Meanwhile, in the East, a sex worker contacted a local garda station to report the location where they believe sex workers work for a "pimp” who is suspected of controlling their earnings. The location has been identified by Gardaí and enquiries are ongoing.
Det Supt Maguire said that following the raids, a number of women contacted gardaí to report their concern for other sex workers.
He said that those involved in trafficking were predominantly from international gangs.
“We find that the organised crime gangs that we are identifying are trafficking people from their own country. That seems to be the trend, but it is generally transnational and foreign nationals,” he added.
People, mostly women, but also some men and transsexuals, are trafficked from Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia to Ireland.
Det Supt Maguire said that while the problem has always “been bad”, gardaí are now recognising the issue more and working closely with partners in the US, Europe and Asian countries.
“It’s becoming more recognised in law enforcement, and indeed, in governments worldwide. It is a huge problem,” he added.
“It’s not that it’s gotten any better or worse. It’s always been there, but we’re starting to recognise it and we’re carrying out more complex investigations now identifying victims.
“I think there’s more victims out there than are being recognised or being identified.
“Sometimes victims don’t know themselves that they’re victims because it may be normal, particularly in labour exploitation.
“That’s the message that we try to get out there that if something isn’t right, and your identity documents are being controlled or your finances are being controlled, it’s like you may be a victim of trafficking.
“If they are victims of trafficking, they can be moved from one brothel to another around the country.
“People have moved to eight or nine different counties around the country.
“Sometimes all their finances are taken, sometimes it’s half but a figure is usually given to them that they have to pay the trafficker back before they can be released.
“So it continues to go on and on. It’s like debt bondage really.”
Meanwhile, Detective Chief Superintendent Colm Noonan, from the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, said that gardaí launched 16 days of activism which will run until December 10.
As past of this, gardaí have launched a text message campaign which is aimed at offering confidential support to those working in the sex trade.
There are two dedicated phone numbers for those in the sex trade in Ireland to contact to report a crime, seek advice or assurance as necessary.
Over 400 messages, which include details of available services and is sent in English, Romanian, Spanish and Portuguese. have already been issued to sex workers this week and will continue in the coming days.
Speaking from garda headquarters in Phoenix Park, Det Chief Supt Noonan said: “Throughout this period, we are reaching out in 16 languages, including Irish sign language to communities across Ireland.
“We’re offering the support, reassurance and protection to victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
“Our members are absolutely committed to combating that crime. We are here to listen, we’re here to protect and we’re here to prosecute those who perpetrate those crimes.
“We’re committed to combatting all forms of domestic sexual and gender based violence.
“So throughout the period of the 16 days, we’re going to be conducting operations focused on three main areas of domestic abuse, sexual crime investigations and human trafficking investigations.”