Just three people have been convicted in the district courts for human trafficking in the past 10 years, despite more than 1,000 cases before them, new figures have revealed.
The number of human trafficking cases going before the courts soared to 149 between January and July 2021, from 17 cases through all of 2010.
The low rate of convictions is being blamed on weak legislation and a large fear factor among those being trafficked unwilling to speak out against those who have been charged.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee has told Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín that a total of 199 people have been charged under human trafficking legislation in Ireland since 2010.
Mr Tóibín is set to raise the figures in the Dáil on Wednesday night during a debate with Ms McEntee on new legislation aimed at cracking down on the scourge of human trafficking.
Of those 199 cases, the figures show 122 were taken under the 2008 Human Trafficking Act and the other 77 were deemed to fall under the 2000 Illegal Immigrants Trafficking Act.
However, only 168 people have been sent forward for trial and just three people have actually been convicted in the district court.
In addition to the 199 charges, a further 382 incidents of human trafficking offences have been reported and either remain under investigation or for which charges have been created under other legislation, Ms McEntee said.
Of the 1,000 offences of sexual exploitation or trafficking of people that have been before the courts, the majority of these offences relate to the sexual exploitation of children.
Ms McEntee said: “Human trafficking is a heinous crime based on deception and exploitation of vulnerable people. This Government is serious about preventing and prosecuting for human trafficking – the victim-centred policy approach that we are taking will encourage more victims to come forward, which will in turn strengthen prosecutions and convictions.
A specialised Garda unit, the Human Trafficking Investigation and Co-ordination Unit (HTICU), has been in place since 2009 to conduct investigations into human trafficking. It also provides advice, support and where necessary, operational assistance to investigations at district level.
Speaking about the figures, Mr Tóibín said the figures highlighted the flaws in legislation. Ireland has been marked as a tier two watchlist country by the US State Department in a recent report regarding human trafficking.
“We know that we have a phenomenal problem in relation to trafficking in this country, and yet over the course of the past decade only three people have been convicted in the district court. This week in the Dáil we will finally ratify the UN's protocol against the smuggling of migrants after an eye-watering 21-year wait,” he said.
While he welcomed the updated legislation, he said it was silent on the rights of the migrant.
“We need to ensure that nobody faces prosecution for the act of being smuggled. We must also ensure that the law does not target people engaged in humanitarian work who are rescuing migrants,” he added.
“We should be looking to strengthen this legislation further to ensure that people who exploit migrants, especially children for labour or sexual abuse are convicted and jailed,” Mr Tóibín said.