Wednesday, 17 June 2020
Supporting Inclusion and Combating Racism in Ireland: Statements
In recent days we have all received hundreds of emails from people throughout the country regarding the Black Lives Matter campaign, a civil rights campaign that has its origins in the slave trade from Africa to North America. Not one of these emails references human trafficking, which is the third most lucrative illicit business in the world after arms and drug trafficking. Human trafficking, or modern-day slave trading, is a hidden crime. Its victims cannot or dare not make themselves known to the authorities for fear of retaliation or because they are illegal emigrants. A common feature of many victims of trafficking is that their home countries are poor and there are few opportunities for employment. The groups most vulnerable to this crime are those of low status without powerful protectors, typically women and children, especially orphans or those subjected to domestic violence, in addition to impoverished men and those in debt bondage.
Many of the trafficked adults are deceived about the type of work they will be doing and may be charged extortionate fees by agencies for arranging work. When they arrive they are tricked or intimidated into surrendering their travel documents and either forced into prostitution or subjected to forced labour. The types of legitimate work that women think they are being recruited to do include jobs in the restaurant trade, domestic work or childminding. They may also be promised education and training opportunities. Some women know they may have to work in the sex industry for a while but they have no idea of the violence and degradation to which they will be subjected. Many children or their families think they are opting for a better life with better education and employment opportunities, sometimes with a private foster family. Many of the victims are held in what is an invisible prison. They are in a foreign country with no language skills and are vulnerable as a result. The same mechanisms have been used in domestic violence down through the generations in this country and elsewhere. Such victims are often raped to test them out initially. In some cases, they are offered to the traffickers' friends to cultivate them into the trade of prostitution.
In 2007, I was appalled to be told that children had disappeared from State care and had been trafficked into the sex industry here and the UK, and into labour exploitation mainly in the UK. I questioned why we had not heard about this scandal before and I was told it was because these children came from Africa and Asia and nobody cared. Nobody even knew how many children had gone missing and did not really care either. They had no mother or father living here in Ireland. They were not from here. As far as official statistics were concerned they never existed. That was institutional and societal racism.
Things were not made easy for me in getting answers and exposing the fact that during the noughties, the most prosperous decade we have seen in Ireland, 443 children went missing from State care and were never found. It was going on unnoticed around us. At least some of these 443 children who were unaccounted for had been forced into the exploitation industry, prostitution or slave labour. What was the response of official Ireland? As an example, in February 2010 a spokesperson for the HSE stated it was unsubstantiated that any of the children who went missing from HSE care had been trafficked but the previous July gardaí had raided three restaurants, including a very popular high-end restaurant, after receiving intelligence that 34 missing children had been in contact with this particular businessman. A subsequent media report on the case in the following June ran a headline stating that missing minors had been traced to a Chinese restaurateur. The article went on to state that gardaí were to recommend that a wealthy Chinese restaurateur be charged with the trafficking of several Chinese children who had disappeared from State care at accommodation hostels for unaccompanied boys and girls in the preceding years.
It was not just that the HSE, which had legal responsibility for the welfare of these children, was failing them. It was also questioning my credibility in highlighting this particular scandal. Unofficial and off the record briefings to the media by official Ireland were to move on and that there was no story. On top of this, the abuse my staff and I put up with when raising this issue was absolutely horrendous. People did not want to have the situation addressed. The attitude was that these children deserved what they got for coming to Ireland in the first place, including the five young Nigerian girls who vanished in June 2007, the youngest of whom was just 11 years of age.
The fact was that migrant girls as young as 15 had been found by gardaí in brothels throughout this country. These figures were only the tip of the iceberg, with suspected child victims of trafficking ranging in age from as young as three to 17 years old who had been transported to Ireland from foreign countries for forced labour, begging, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation and forced marriage.
At the height of the political focus on historical residential abuse in our industrial schools, that very same dereliction of care on behalf of the State was continuing to allow those who exploited and abused children of different colours and nationalities to go on undetected. That is institutional racism. As a Member of the Oireachtas who did not want to let this continue simply on the basis of the colour of a child's skin, my staff and I faced an avalanche of abuse every time I highlighted this injustice.
That abuse paled into insignificance when I successfully turned the legal tables on prostitution for the very first time in this country, making it illegal knowingly to purchase sex from a person who had been trafficked into the country. This was the very first time in Irish law that a person availing of the services of a prostitute was subject to criminal sanction, and it was the precursor to the subsequent legislation by the Minister at the time, Frances Fitzgerald, criminalising the purchase of sex. The reason that I argued so strongly at the time and was able to convince the then Minister, the late Brian Lenihan, was because of the scale of migrant women in the sex industry in Ireland at that point. Up to 97% of the 1,000 women involved in indoor prostitution in Ireland at that time were migrant women. In fact, in 2007 and 2008, a minimum of 102 women and girls were clearly identified as sex trafficked, 11 of whom were children when they arrived in Ireland. None of these women knew they were destined for the Irish sex trade, but as far as official Ireland was concerned, they were women who had made life choices of going into such a career.
It was not just official Ireland. There was, let us say, a frosty reception by Members of this House to my success in amending that law. The abuse that was received by my office at the time from a minority of the public was vile. In fact, I recall we had to stop answering the phones altogether at one stage due to the abuse. We received some very sick correspondence as well. Yet, having had to put up with such abuse, I have been branded a racist, even by Members of this House, because I questioned the direct provision system in a particular manner, one that the public could relate to. For me, the direct provision system is inhumane and, as I have stated in this House on many occasions, is the institutional abuse of our generation.
It is far too easy for the ill-informed to throw the racist tag about when one is trying to have a constructive discussion about issues involving people from other countries and cultures. We have to be able to question what we see as wrong in our society, whether that is children of any race going missing from State care or the scandal of the direct provision system, yet attacks from keyboard warriors, abusive phone calls, and the attitudes of colleagues can leave people afraid to question what they believe is wrong and allows institutional racism to continue unchallenged.