Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 April 2024

EU Regulations (Police Co-operation on Migrant Smuggling and Trafficking in Human Beings): Motion


9:30 am

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent) | Oireachtas source

The Minister is very welcome to the Chamber. I congratulate her on retaining her position.

I welcome the opt-in regarding enhanced police co-operation against human trafficking. An international approach to this issue is of critical importance in tackling human trafficking. By its nature, human trafficking is dependent on well organised, international criminal networks. One challenge faced by An Garda Síochána in this area is the difficulty in prosecuting human traffickers due to the international nature of the enterprise, so enhancing policing powers and co-operation with foreign police services such as Europol is a welcome development. I would like to see the human trafficking unit in An Garda Síochána strengthened in numbers, as currently there are only 16 people employed in that department. The unit is understaffed and I ask the Minister to fix that.

At national level, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2023 is before the Dáil. It proposes key reforms that will benefit An Garda Síochána in its work to police human trafficking and exploitation. Making the national referral mechanism for victims of human trafficking a statutory provision will be of huge benefit in bringing those who perpetrate these crimes to justice. This mechanism provides for co-operation between State organisations, Government Departments and civic society groups which assist victims of human trafficking to ensure adequate resourcing and support is available, especially when victims choose to come forward and report a crime.However, the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report ranked Ireland as failing to meet the minimum standards in victim identification, referral and assistance. This is frankly appalling. A study showed 88% of trafficking victims engaged with the healthcare system during their time of being trafficked but less than 1% identified were identified. We must train all healthcare workers in identifying trafficking.

While the HSE is listed as a competent authority in the Bill, the Department of Health is not, which will limit the scope of engagement of non-public healthcare workers. If we are serious as a nation about this vital issue, we must ensure all healthcare professionals are adequately trained and supported in identifying trafficking victims.

Yesterday, Annette Kennedy and Anne-Marie Ryan of the health and social care education trafficking group came to Leinster House and highlighted vital issues in relation to identifying trafficking. They noted that dentists, physiotherapists and even social workers do not typically receive training in identifying trafficking. If the Department of Health is listed as a competent authority, the Dental Council, CORU and many other regulatory bodies will be within the remit to train their members on identifying trafficking because trafficked people use the broad spectrum of health services. Including this training in the codes of professional conduct of these bodies will directly impact the educational institutions for these medical professionals and will equip all medical staff, public and private, trained and qualified, in how to identify trafficking.

Beyond healthcare professionals, it is critical to implement licences for those who work with civic society groups which assist human trafficking victims or assist those coming into Ireland seeking international protection to ensure oversight and regulation of these services. Many people operate in this space as consultants without any specific certification or credentials. It is vital for the success of an initiative to regulate this space appropriately. The criminal underground operations that thrive within our system are not merely undermining its integrity but are also likely perpetrating heinous crimes, particularly trafficking vulnerable individuals, especially women and children, into prostitution.

Organ trafficking is as yet unquantified. We had one case of that last year. It is a growing international problem, particularly in such countries as Afghanistan which has a high number of international refugees worldwide. This is why specially licensing international protection professionals is necessary, if not overdue. By demanding licences for professionals working in the international protection and refugee system, we can establish a robust framework that holds individuals and organisations accountable for their actions. Licences will help to ensure that only qualified and ethical individuals are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting and advocating for refugees and asylum seekers.

Previously, I highlighted concerns regarding Ukrainian children brought to County Mayo by a charity. This charity did not notify Tusla on the arrival of these children. Many of these children flew without a parent or guardian. Under the law as it stands, notification to Tusla might be sufficient to comply with the current laws but is that really enough? When it comes to people crossing borders, especially children, we need to ensure the highest standard of protection of all involved. The national referral mechanism should perhaps include children by default as a way of ensuring that children fleeing war get the particular support that they need and that they are also tracked in a system, should there be any risk that they have been trafficked.

By clearly setting out guidelines and expectations through licensing requirements, we can instil trust and confidence in the system, reassuring both the public and those seeking safety and support. By training our healthcare professionals we can aim to meet the highest standards in identifying and assisting victims of the crime. I welcome the EU and national laws on this matter.


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