Irish Examiner view: Slavery is not just a historic issue

World Day against Trafficking in Persons
Irish Examiner view: Slavery is not just a historic issue
Mary Crilly Sexual Violence Centre Cork and Sarina Gabor HSE Community worker Cork at the launch of a campaign to get people to tackle human trafficking. File picture: Clare Keogh

The decision by the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin to remove four statues from their plinths has reignited the debate about slavery and how it is represented in street architecture.

 Whether or not you agree with the hotel’s decision, it is a welcome acknowledgement that monuments can cause offence.

Now, let’s extend some of the collective outrage about historic slavery to further highlight another pressing issue — Ireland’s poor response to human trafficking, a form of modern slavery.

Last month, a US State department report put Ireland on a watchlist alongside Romania and Bosnia for its poor handling of human trafficking. Ireland was the only country in western Europe to fall so short, the report said.

Yesterday, on World Day against Trafficking in Persons, those shortcomings were put in the spotlight again. 

The Government was accused of being “in denial” about a multibillion-euro enterprise that denies an estimated 25m people worldwide of their freedom, forcing them to live and work enslaved.

Earlier this week, gardaí in North Cork rescued three Eastern European men suspected of being forced to work against their will. 

That is a step in the right direction, but there is still an awful lot to be done to address the Government’s “systemic deficiencies” in identifying and supporting the victims of trafficking.

Since 2013, 471 trafficking victims have been identified in Ireland, but as the Trafficking in Persons report points out, there have been “zero convictions under the anti-trafficking legislation”. 

In 2019, 34 of those victims were exploited in sex trafficking and six in labour trafficking. Nine of them were children.

Up to now, many victims of trafficking have been housed in direct provision centres, which is deeply inappropriate. 

Cross-Government Strategy

At least the new Government has promised a much-needed overhaul of our international protection system.

It will also need to take note of EU legislation, planned for next year, which will attempt to stem the trade in minerals, such as tin and gold, that are mined using forced or child labour. 

There has to be accountability about what businesses are doing and their supply chains, as Kevin Hyland, the Irish representative on Greta (the Council of Europe’s Independent Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings) has said.

Ireland also needs a cross-Government strategy and transparency laws to tackle the issue properly, he said.

More than that, it needs the willingness. We have seen how the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred many local authorities and private businesses to review — and in some cases remove —  the symbols of the abhorrent Atlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is disagreement about whether or not the Shelbourne’s statues are symbols of slavery. They were erected in the 19th-century at the height of Egyptian mania and, despite reports, the two torch-bearers were wearing anklets, rather than chains.

Now, Dublin City Council is to investigate the planning implications of the decision. The debate, no doubt, will rumble on. 

Any and all discussion is welcome. However, as well as talking about how slavery echoes down from the past, we need to start talking about how it continues to ruin so many lives now.

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