Buying Sex: State needs to follow Northern lead

The North’s vote to criminalise the buying of sex is the wake-up call that the Oireachtas needs, writes Denise Charlton

THE overwhelming midnight vote of 81-10 by politicians at Stormont to support laws targeting the buyers of sex has made life a lot more difficult for the pimps, traffickers, and organised crime gangs which run prostitution north of the border.

The vote is historic, not only because it united the DUP and Sinn Féin, but also because for the first time those behind the multibillion-euro sex-trade on both sides of the Irish Sea will see their business model destroyed in one jurisdiction.

The result has been welcomed by campaigners on both sides of the border, including the 72 organisations which make up the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign.

However, it also has serious implications for communities here, because overnight we have become a lot more attractive and more profitable for pimps.

There must now be real concern that criminal gangs who will see demand reduce in Belfast, Derry, and Newry will now boost their activities in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and other parts of the Republic.

There can be no doubt that sex buyers in Northern Ireland fearing prosecution will be travelling to border towns and into our cities knowing that here they can purchase sex indoors with no fear of being caught.

Monday’s vote at Stormont is the wake-up call which the Oireachtas has needed, the process to approve the laws in the North took 18 months and included full examination of the issues involved as well as public hearings.

In the Oireachtas a similar process is heading towards a third calendar year with still no firm commitment that action will be taken.

In recent weeks there have been welcome remarks from Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. She has committed to examine ways to reduce demand for prostitution and trafficking, and to “follow the money” to put the criminals involved out of business.

However, any further delay will leave our communities vulnerable to a “trade” which has shown it has no respect for borders. When Sweden introduced sex buyer laws 12-years ago, it led to a boom in illegal activity in neighbouring countries.

The Stockholm police chief estimates that between 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually trafficked into Sweden for prostitution while in Finland, where there is no law targeting demand, the number is 15,000 to 17,000. The Swedish experience also stands in marked contrast to the situation in the Netherlands — where laws which attempted to regularise prostitution have brought about more than a decade of failure.

Organised crime and illegal brothels flourish, right alongside those which are licensed.

Amsterdam is well recognised as the hub for human trafficking in Europe.

Such has been the abuse of underage girls in legal prostitution that the minimum age limit has had to be raised to 21 – to make it easier to identify those girls who are being exploited and subjected to statutory rape.

Amsterdam is estimated to have 8,000-11,000 people in prostitution — in Stockholm that figure is fewer than 200.

We know the South is not immune from these crimes, a quick check on escort websites confirms that 800-1,000 women are for sale here every day.

The gardaí have testified before the Oireachtas that organised criminal gangs foreign and domestic run Irish prostitution — while the CSO estimate that this activity is part of an underworld of pushers and pimps taking €1.2bn a year from Ireland.

Following this week’s Stormont vote those figures will only increase.

However this is still an opportunity to act and prevent this. The vote is a step, albeit a hugely significant one, towards sex buyer laws.

Lord Morrow, who produced the Anti-Trafficking Bill which included these measures, is now working with officials to advance it and make the laws a reality. That will take a little bit of time.

Our politicians must use that window of opportunity to ensure we too have robust laws to cut demand and put these gangsters out of business.

To have two jurisdictions operating separate anti-trafficking laws on the island would be a disaster and send out a message to the criminal underworld that while clients are afraid to come forward in the North, the Republic remains open for business.

There is already a blueprint to proceed with laws here. In June of last year the Oireachtas justice committee unanimously backed sex buyer laws. We should now build on that political consensus and ensure swift action to move quickly to legislation.

The Department of Justice has argued for an all-Island approach to prostitution. On Monday one part of this island showed political leadership it’s time for our TDs and senators to follow.

- Denis Charlton is the CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland


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