IRELAND is about to join the growing list of countries intent on wrecking the business model which has allowed prostitution and human trafficking for exploitation to flourish as a violent, vicious, exploitative criminal industry.
When Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald publishes the new Sexual Offences Bill this week she will be setting us on a course which brings us into line with Sweden, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and shortly France.
With measures to target the buyers of sex, Ms Fitzgerald will make life a lot more difficult for the pimps, traffickers and thugs who run Irish prostitution and have brought sex-trafficking victims and pop-up brothels to every corner of this country.
The criminality which lies behind the sex-trade has been well documented. Exact figures are difficult to establish but is estimated men who buy sex are putting between €180m to €250m a year directly into the pockets of crime gangs.
The measures which we are expecting from the minister are punitive — but have proven to be highly effective. Those buying sex will in most cases face fines at the lower end of the scale, but what will be achieved in terms of a change of mindset will be huge.
In countries where sex buyer laws have been implemented it is no longer socially acceptable for anyone to buy another person. Faced with a collapse in trade the criminals simply move on.
It is four years since the Government first began its review of the laws on prostitution — and we have had an extensive investigation by the Oireachtas justice committee. After studying 800 written submissions, months of public hearings as well as examining international experience every member of the committee, under the chair of David Stanton, backed sex buyer laws.
They accepted the testimony of survivors who spoke of being raped in brothels up to 12 times a day, of being sold out to be gang raped and that those behind these abuses are organised crime networks — foreign and domestic.
They’re often teenage girls. They are tricked into coming to Ireland with false promises of a dream life, only for that dream to become a nightmare when reality dawns in Dublin Airport. Within hours they are in a brothel.
It is brutal, callous and heartless — what follows is years of daily threats, abuse and rape. Young girls in a strange country are told that if they seek help they will be deported or that revenge will be exacted on their family at home.
Some do escape. In 2014, we supported 20 such women while we have received 11 pleas for help so far this year.
Other measures which will be included in the bill will include a crackdown on child grooming.
At the Immigrant Council, we want to create a specific offence of child grooming to prevent those who buy or abuse children online and in the community from using clever legal tricks to avoid prosecution. In addition to creating an offence we want hefty jail sentences for those intent on placing children in danger and would like this set at the upper level of 12 years.
There should be no doubt children have been targeted by the sex trade in this country — last year 13 children were among the 45 suspected trafficking victims identified, in previous years those figures have been even higher.
Survivors too have told us how buyers are constantly seeking “fresh young flesh”. Older teens or women in their 20s are told to shave their bodies to look younger and meet the demand.
No woman or girl must be treated like a criminal and the important work which support agencies are providing must be built upon. As the debate advances we will be working hard to secure these commitments.
Failure to proceed with these laws would be unthinkable.
As other countries, in particular our neighbours, pass their sex buyer laws Ireland would also be increasingly regarded as a safe haven for pimps and traffickers.
We already saw evidence of this when the North introduced its laws on June 1. In the weeks before we saw a marked increase in online prostitution along the border counties as pimps moved this business south. At one stage there was an 85% increase in profiles on escort websites for Dundalk with 26 women for sale — while 10 minutes up the road in Newry City there was just one.
As part of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign groups representing every aspect of Irish life have spoken out.
They have each looked at the evidence and accept that criminality lies at the very heart of the sex “trade”. They see it for what it is — exploitation, abuse, and rape — and have rejected it.
It is time for our political leaders to listen and for Ireland to finally Turn Off the Red Light for Christmas.
Denise Charlton is an expert on trafficking with the Immigrant Council of Ireland