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 Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Councillor Deirdre Donnelly and her group from Stillorgan who are here this afternoon. I thank them for being here. I hope they have a very pleasant afternoon.

I welcome the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to the House. I congratulate her on her reappointment as Minister and wish her every success in the remainder of her term.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the House for facilitating this motion today. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on Ireland's opt-in to a new EU proposal for a regulation on enhancing police co-operation in relation to the prevention, detection and investigation of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, and on enhancing Europol's support to preventing and combating such crimes and amending Regulation (EU) 2016/794, which is the Europol regulation.

Ireland has an option, provided for in Article 3 of Protocol 21 annexed to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to opt in to individual proposals in the area of freedom, security and justice. The protocol provides that Ireland has three months from the date a proposal is presented to the Council to notify the Presidency of the Council of its wish to take part and that is exactly what we are doing here today.

The European Commission published the proposal for a regulation in November of last year, with the intention of enhancing police co-operation in the fight against migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. The Commission is also seeking to amend certain provisions of the Europol regulation. As we know, Europol is the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation. Its mission is to support EU member states in preventing and combating all forms of serious international and organised crime, cybercrime and terrorism. With regards to migrant smuggling, it is clear that smuggling to and within the EU is reaching new heights. In 2023 alone, it is estimated that there were approximately 380,000 irregular entries at EU borders - the highest levels since 2016. This represents a continuing multi-year surge in migration. It is estimated that 90% of irregular migrants entering the EU have made use of smugglers. Globally, it is estimated that smuggling networks generate between €4 billion and €6 billion every year in revenue from this illicit activity. Although people willingly pay smugglers to help them cross borders, they generally do so at great personal risk. Migrant smugglers often use violence or the threat of violence against irregular migrants to ensure their compliance or to force them to pay smuggling fees. Migrants are often endangered by the methods used by smugglers to move them across borders with this heinous crime taking a staggering humanitarian toll. Too many lose their lives or are at risk of serious harm or exploitation, such as the risk of being trafficked.

There is no doubt that migrant smuggling has far-reaching consequences for the migrants themselves. This vulnerability is exploited by criminal networks that disrespect human life, all in the pursuit of profit. This is also an issue for the security of our jurisdiction and the EU. This common and complex challenge requires common and multifaceted solutions. The European Commission has therefore put forward this proposal for an EU regulation as part of a package of measures to modernise the legal framework to fight migrant smuggling. The regulation is accompanied by a proposal for a directive on preventing and countering the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and stay, by which Ireland is automatically bound, and by a global alliance to counter migrant smuggling.

The new directive will allow EU member states to effectively prosecute and sanction organised criminal networks responsible for migrant smuggling; harmonise legislation and penalties; and expand jurisdiction to cases in which non-EU nationals lose their lives. The global alliance to counter migrant smuggling will focus on prevention and alternatives to irregular migration, including addressing the root causes of irregular migration and facilitating legal pathways, as a key deterrent to smuggling. Together, this package of measures will ensure the necessary legal and operational tools are in place to mitigate this worsening crime.

If I can, I will briefly provide more detail about the specific elements of this package. This regulation will step up the prevention, detection and investigation of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings by strengthening interagency co-operation and co-ordination at EU level. This is about making sure gardaí are talking to agencies across the EU and other police services, improving information-sharing in that regard and reinforcing the support available from member states and Europol.The regulation will establish in law the European centre against migrant smuggling at Europol as an EU centre of expertise for combating migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. It provides for the composition of this centre, which will bring together Europol staff, representatives of each member state, liaison officers from Eurojust and Frontex as well as representatives involved in EU operational priorities in this area. The tasks of this centre will include providing strategic analyses and threat assessments, supporting the implementation of strategic and operational priorities, monitoring trends in migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, identifying cases that may require advanced operational support, co-ordinating, organising and implementing investigative and operational actions to support member States, and supporting co-ordination, co-operation and the exchange of information.

Under the proposed regulation, each member state will be obliged to designate a national specialised service, which will be the Garda National Immigration Bureau here. These services will collect and share all relevant information about criminal investigations into migrant smuggling using Europol’s secure information exchange network application, SIENA, database. As such, this regulation will reinforce Europol as the EU information hub on migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. It will enable Europol and member states to enhance our situational awareness, which is needed if we are to tackle this phenomenon effectively.

The regulation provides that a member state may request, in accordance with national law, Europol deployment for operational support on its territory to make use of the analytical, operational, technical, forensic and financial support provided by Europol to prevent and combat crimes falling within Europol’s objectives. Such Europol deployments for operational support will draw from a reserve pool of member state experts, to be established under this regulation. It is very important that we opt in now so that we are at the table when these details are being worked through. The Office of the Attorney General has identified that there are no legal impediments or constitutional obstacles to Ireland opting in. Obviously, my officials will actively participate in the negotiations.

In a nutshell, this is about making sure that we have closer co-operation between An Garda Síochána and other police services, particularly Europol, and that we are able to exchange information and have access to the right types of tools and capabilities to deal with these organised crime groups which are inflicting misery and, in some cases, causing people to lose their lives at sea or in containers. When those being smuggled or trafficked get here, they are forced into prostitution or enforced labour. This is about making sure those who are responsible are held accountable and those who are victims of smuggling and trafficking are supported. I urge colleagues to support this motion so that we can opt in and be part of this measure at the earliest stages to ensure it is as effective as possible.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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Before calling on Senator Ward, I welcome our guests from Gaelcholáiste Ceatharlach, Carlow, which is just down the road from my home. They are guests today of the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan. You are very welcome and I hope you enjoy your day in Seanad and Dáil Éireann.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire as an bpost atá fós aici. Ba mhaith liom freisin fáilte a fhearadh roimh an rún seo ón ngrúpa Fhine Gael. There is nothing in this motion that we should be afraid of. It makes absolute sense to opt into this measure. Unfortunately, Ireland has not been a champion in dealing with human trafficking. We have already been identified as a tier two country and we have work to do to make sure that we are not seen as a target for the organised criminal groups of which the Minister speaks. We need to ensure that when somebody is trafficked here, An Garda Síochána is on top of it and able to respond in a way that, first and foremost, identifies such people and then that the system is equipped to deal with the situation that is identified.

We do not have a good record and sometimes we do not realise just how pervasive this problem is. We are aware of the tragedy and deaths the Minister mentioned, which have touched people in this country, including deaths in containers arriving in Rosslare. They are ones we know about but there are so many people who are trafficked into this country that we do not know about. They are working in what is essentially modern-day slavery, be it in client-facing roles or otherwise. That is something that must be tackled. We cannot imagine the damage that human trafficking does, not only to the people involved but to our whole society. When people exist in our society in the background and in the shadows it damages us all and that is why this is so important. We need to take action. We know that action to date has not been sufficiently strong. My understanding is that in the seven years up to 2020, 471 trafficking victims were identified but not a single conviction has arisen from those identifications. We know that it is happening and yet, when it has been identified, the criminal justice system appears to be ill equipped or incapable of securing convictions of the people involved. Trafficked victims do not come here on their own. They are trafficked, by definition, and when they come here, they end up living in awful conditions. I recently heard about a person who was expected to work for 50 hours per week for €200. That person was essentially a modern-day slave and that is happening all over Ireland.

One of the things we are not doing enough of is educating people about how to spot victims of trafficking because the chances are that all of us have encountered them, unwittingly, in our daily lives. We are not equipped with the skills, whether as customers or as fellow employees, to be aware that people are in such a situation. One thing that has been called for time and again is training or an awareness campaign to enable people to spot the signs of trafficking, to identify people who are in that awful position and to take steps. If they do take steps, where do they go? They go to An Garda Síochána but can we also set up a national hotline to support that? There should be a confidential number for people to use. We already have the Garda confidential line, which people could use, but I am talking about a hotline that is dedicated to human trafficking issues. It would be a number that anybody could call for advice or assistance but also, most importantly, to report something suspicious. People who are trafficked here do not necessarily come from countries where the police are trusted so they do not feel that they can come forward to An Garda Síochána because the consequences of doing that might be even more dire. They might get sent back to a place where their life would be in danger. We need to educate those people as well so they can see that An Garda Síochána is there to help not hinder them. Gardaí are there to help them out of a situation that is untenable and appalling.

This motion on opting in to this protocol is really important and I cannot think of any reason Members of this House would oppose it. It is an instrument that is designed to better equip us with the tools we need to do exactly what I have just been talking about, namely identify the victims of trafficking and deal with it in the proper way within the criminal justice system to ensure the victim is supported and the perpetrator is brought to justice. That is hugely important. When we do not do that, the system fails. When we do not bring the traffickers to justice, they feel they can act with impunity. They will do it again and again and the more they get away with it or feel they can get away with it, the more it will happen. If we want to move out of that list of tier two countries, we need to deal effectively with trafficking. If we avail of all of the options listed by the Minister, including greater powers and funding for Europol, greater inter-agency actions around the EU and greater assistance from our colleagues in Europe, we will start to solve this problem. This is the way we can move out of tier two and say to the victims of the awful act of trafficking that we are here to support them, solve their problems and bring the perpetrators to justice. In that way we can send out a very clear message that this country does not tolerate human trafficking.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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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.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister back to the House and congratulate her on her reappointment to her role. Her voice is causing a bit of difficulty today. I am not going to repeat everything in my briefing notes, much of which was outlined in the Minister's speech and in Senator Ward's contribution. Indeed even Senator Keogan is on the same side on this one so we seem to have relative unanimity without wanting to pre-empt Senators Warfield's and O'Reilly's contributions.

It is important that we make a few points on this. On my own behalf and on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, we welcome this debate and support the motion. Migrant smuggling is a criminal activity. It disrespects human life and strips people of dignity in the pursuit of profit. Fighting and preventing migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings is one of the priorities of the EU and crucial to addressing irregular migration in a comprehensive way. Migrants' movement is big business. There is no doubt about that. A lot of money is being made by people in this. That is then going on to fund other activities in terms of maybe arms, drugs and so on. Therefore fighting and preventing migrants from moving is one of the priorities of the European Union and is essential to dismantling organised crime networks that cause human rights violations and countering the increase in irregular migration to the EU.

This proposal is part of a package of wider measures put forward by the Commission to modernise the legal framework. What we are doing is technical in nature, ensuring and codifying that we are co-operating with other police forces throughout Europe. The proposed regulation will enforce Europol's role and interagency co-operation in the fight against migrant smuggling and trafficking.

It is important that we acknowledge that in 2022 approximately - of course, we do not know how many and this is only an estimate - 331,000 irregular entries were detected. That number was detected, although we do not know how many were not detected, at the EU external borders. That is the highest level since 2016, representing a 66% increase on the previous year, 2021. From January to September 2023, approximately 281,000 irregular border crossings were detected at the external borders of the EU, representing an 18% increase on the previous year.

It is estimated that the activities of ruthless migrant smugglers, especially at sea, resulted in a staggering death toll of 28,000 people since 2014. About half of the migrant smuggling networks are also involved in other crimes such as trafficking in drugs, firearms smuggling and facilitating other unauthorised movements within the EU. If anything, this perhaps does not go as far as we might like it to go. However, it is a good step along the way towards reducing the activity of migrant smuggling groups, of ensuring that Ireland is not seen as a soft touch and that ideally people realise this is not a place to send them.

For every aircraft that lands in Dublin Airport and in any of our airports, the airlines know the nationality or suggested nationality of everybody on that aeroplane. Obviously, anybody who is a British national, an Irish national or a national of any other EU member state is entitled to be here. We know that. However, if aircraft are landing here with people from other countries with a lot of documentation, maybe we should be meeting them at the door because we have evidence that people have passports, which are fake documents that are provided to them, and that the documents are left on the aeroplane or are possibly sent back with one of the smugglers or people involved with the smuggling. The people arrive in with no papers. They could not have got on the aeroplane without papers but they get off the aeroplane without papers. We need to tackle that at the door of the aircraft. Aircraft are landing here on which potentially there are people with fake documents. We need to tackle them and tell people they are not getting off the aeroplane and that they are going back to where they came from. We cannot allow a situation where we are seen as a soft touch.

I am not saying that is the case but certainly we know of situations where people are getting on aeroplanes with documents and by the time they get here they have lost them. They are gaming the system. They are actually depriving support to those who are in genuine need of it because they are clogging up the system. I would like to hear the Minister's response to that, that is, that we tackle those particular aircraft. If we do so, then people who should not be travelling here will not do so. People in genuine need of support will have documents and will often be entitled to protection here but many others are just gaming the system and we cannot allow that to continue. Therefore, I support the motion and the debate this afternoon.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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Before I call Senator Warfield, I welcome the visitors in the Public Gallery who are guests of Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú. They are very welcome to Seanad Éireann and I hope they enjoy their day in Dáil Éireann as well.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her on her reappointment. I also welcome our guests in the Public Gallery. They are very welcome here.

It is paramount that Ireland remains steadfast in our commitment to international solidarity for those affected by war and conflict globally, but also that we remain steadfast in our opposition to further EU militarisation and interventionism, two things that further the displacement of people and conflict as well.In our view we should not concede power to the European Union to set policies that threaten Ireland with infringement proceedings in areas where we could and should manage things on the basis of the democratic mandate of the Government of the day. Ireland should only opt into laws where the State could not otherwise act and where EU-wide action is in Ireland's interest. That is the basis on which EU policy and proposals should be evaluated. We recognise, however, that international crime and organised crime, and collaboration and co-operation on international crime, are important. These gangs do not respect borders or states. With increasing enforcement against their activities, be it money laundering, drug dealing, people trafficking or smuggling, they have increasingly co-operated among themselves. Accordingly, co-operation with the EU is important and that is what the proposal entails.

As I understand it, the proposed regulation is intended to reinforce Europol's role and inter-agency co-operation in the fight against migrant smuggling and trafficking of human beings. For those reasons, this is an important measure. Smugglers and traffickers are in many cases responsible for huge numbers of deaths at EU borders. They often promise the world and then abandon people to the authorities at the first sight of trouble. Even when people make it to the EU, they must then engage in forced labour or are forced to pay off an imaginary debt while their documents are seized and any number of threats are made against them should they alert the authorities.

The Minister referred to the regulation containing a number of measures, which we are happy to support given they are all aimed at increasing the prevention, detection and investigation of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. In doing so, we are pursuing five objectives, namely, strengthening inter-agency co-operation; strengthening the steer and co-ordination at EU level; improving information sharing; reinforcing member states' resources; and reinforcing Europol's support. The establishment of a reserve pool of national experts that can be called upon by Europol for deployment to assist with migrant smuggling investigations is welcome. It is a further positive to see the increase in funding for Europol. I thank the House for the opportunity to speak to the motion.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I warmly congratulate my neighbour, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on her reappointment as Minister for Justice. She is my neighbour from across the fields as they say. It is good to see her in that role in which she has been making huge waves.

I formally support the adoption of the regulation enhancing police co-operation in relation to prevention, detection and investigation of human trafficking. I had the privilege and honour of meeting the health and social care education and human trafficking group recently. I hosted a briefing in the audiovisual room in Leinster House yesterday as a consequence of that meeting. Thankfully, it was well attended by Members from all the parties, which I am thrilled about because it means there is awareness across the parties.

The two principals in the group I met are Dr. Annette Kennedy, president emeritus of the International Council of Nurses, and Dr. Anne-Marie Ryan, who has lectured in Trinity College Dublin, has a PhD in education and was a nurse educator. Both women began life as nurses in the Richmond Hospital and then gained eminence in their profession at organisational and professional level. Both are doctors now and obviously have huge competencies, academically, intellectually and in terms of practical experience. Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Ryan addressed the cross-party gathering yesterday. They made a very important point that I am very concerned about, which will come up again when we discuss the legislation on human trafficking. They want officials in the Department of Health, professionals, nurses, doctors, GPs, care workers and social workers, of whom I am proud to say my son is one, to have a competence to detect a trafficked person and report the matter. The group wants this to be part of the education of health professionals and argues that there would be a module on it. This would not necessarily involve huge costs because it would be part of a college course. They are asking for a module to be included on this critical issue.

The health and social care education and human trafficking group informed me that in the first year of being trafficked, 88% of trafficked persons will approach a medical practitioner or nurse with an issue, whether it is a pregnancy, an injury, a disease or one of a myriad other things. Only 1% of that 88% are detected as trafficked. I know the Minister has a huge interest in this issue and is very sensitive to it. That is an horrific statistic by any objective criteria, but especially given that 50 million people are trafficked globally. A trafficking in persons, TIP, report done in the United States ranked Ireland as a tier two country. We should be ashamed of that fact and it is one the Minister wants to change. It needs to be changed and I appeal to her to make that a priority.

Trafficked people are working in labour in full sight. The first and most famous person trafficked to Ireland was St. Patrick. Since the trafficking of St. Patrick, about which we all express horror around St. Patrick's Day, the problem has got worse. Millions of people are being trafficked globally. When we have our cars filled with petrol or washed and when we stay in hotels, we see people who are trafficked. They may be working on intensive farms. We need to be vigilant and conscious of the problem. The adoption of this regulation will be a step in the right direction but I appeal to the Minister to support the idea of having this subject made part of the education of professionals so they can spot it.

Our work today is good but it is only a fraction of what we need to do on this. People will evaluate us in years to come on many things that are bleak and dark now. One of the things history will judge is how we responded to this horror in front of our eyes and whether we looked the other way, metaphorically or literally.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate the Minister on her reappointment. We look forward to seeing her regularly in this House, although not on one particular Bill unless there are substantial changes but we will talk about that on another occasion.

The Minister has brought a very important issue before us. I support the motion that we opt in to this measure. It is vital, as a country, that we up our game in response to the problem of human trafficking. Maybe we should have a debate in the House on why we are only at level two according to the trafficking in persons report? We have been underperforming in this area for a long time. Recognising the goodwill on all sides, we should not be afraid to ask what has gone wrong and why we are laggards in this area. Is it that we are not putting enough money into it? God knows, we have enough money in this country. Is it that we are not appointing enough staff?

I came through Dublin Airport recently. Long before reaching passport control, passengers were asked to show our passports getting off the plane. I was glad to see that. It is a sign of a new vigilance. I hope that rigidity or determination - if that is what it betokens - will be matched by deeper thinking and a compassionate and consistent approach to the whole area of migration. I have always said that we need a policy that is generous but structured and structured but generous. It is vital that we get this issue right because when it comes to drugs and trafficking if these issues get out of control, this country will not always have the resources it has now.

I often wonder if we think enough about what our society will look like in 50 or 60 years' time if we do not get these problems under control. Will it be a capital offence, for example? Will capital punishment come back in as a response to major drug smuggling and trafficking issues? We think we have achieved a certain human rights standard now but if problems get out of control, lots of other things will change too. It is vital, not just for humanitarian reasons but for the very coherence and stability of our society, that we get to grips with these issues.I was very struck by what Senator Ward said and he brought home the issue that we are all encountering victims of trafficking in ways. Are we doing enough? For example, should there be a public awareness campaign? We see ads on TV and hear them on radio warning against domestic violence and all sorts of other important problems. Are people being alerted to their obligations as citizens to be aware of the possibility of trafficking? Are there sufficient consequences, for example, if people accept and take in a trafficked person as a cleaner and underpay them? Is there an inspectorate, for example, that would visit abattoirs and car washes? Does it happen or does it happen enough that there are random inspections to see who is working in these places? Are people employed and on the books or are they being exploited? This is very complex because in some cases families bring other family members in and work as a team. However, in other cases, people have been trafficked for labour that is underpaid or not paid at all. Is the reason we have been underperforming in the TIP report that we do not have boots on the ground, so to speak? Is it that we have not taken it seriously at governmental level and put out the advertising to alert people to their civic and moral responsibilities not to have anything to do with trafficking and not to get implicated as an end user in any way of the trafficking business? Have we got enough people on the ground? I mean bloodhounds, not just watchdogs, who are seeking out where this is happening and taking action accordingly. I am afraid I have had many more questions than answers in what I have had to say today but this is an issue. Whatever about the importance of these linkages with European colleagues, which are vital and all to the good, the work has to be done here at home if we are to get to get to grips with this problem. I would like a further and more extended discussion with the Minister on these issues in due course.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The Senator will have an opportunity in the coming weeks when the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2023 comes before the House. More broadly, I thank colleagues for their support of this motion in order that we can opt-in at the earliest stage. When we opt-in early, it means we can shape the regulation and we can be as involved from the earliest stage possible. I accept and thank the support of colleagues for that.

More broadly, there is a lot more we need to be doing on human trafficking. We are at tier 2. I intend that we move off and away from that and there are a number of ways we can do that. Most importantly, it is by passing the new legislation I have just referenced which will put the new national referral mechanism on a statutory footing. At the moment, the only competent authority and the only route for people who are trafficked or smuggled into this country is through An Garda Síochána. Many people, as Senator Ward pointed to, come from countries where they do not feel safe going to their police services so why would they when they come here. They do not have other routes to go down and that is why we have so few people coming forward and so few prosecutions. We have had three people prosecuted. They were the first prosecutions in this country back in 2021. Obviously, I hope this will a sign of things to come but in order for prosecutions to take place, we need victims to come forward, we need to have that evidence and we need to support the gardaí in doing that.

The new national referral mechanism will allow other competent authorities to become voices and places of safe haven for people to come forward. They will include the HSE, the Department of Justice, the Department of Social Protection and many of the voluntary and community organisations that work with people who are trafficked, where people will be able to go and seek help and support. In parallel with that legislation, we have, in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders, developed a new human trafficking strategy. A key part of that strategy is training. It is really important when we designate the competent authorities that there be training. As colleagues have mentioned, health and social care professionals will be included in that training, as well as anybody else who they feel might come into contact with trafficked people. That is not to say this is not happening at all currently. It is the case, particularly working with the likes of IOM, which is a wonderful organisation. There is training taking place with airlines and through freight and transport carriers in our ports, in particular, with the hospitality sector where we have identified this as a key area of risk and with our security services. We have public awareness raising campaigns and specific days highlighting it throughout the year. However, we want this to be maintained at a level where people are aware of it. People are not fully aware of the extent to which people are trafficked into this country. The vast majority are women and children who are trafficked for sexual exploitation but there are also people who are forced into labour. As Senator O'Reilly rightly said, they are in plain sight but we do not see them in the way that we should. It is about increasing awareness. We have to invest more in it but also make sure the legal mechanisms and the structures are there so that victims feel confident in coming forward. That will be addressed with the legislation.

I hope that will enable us to move off tier 2 but most importantly that victims come forward and we have prosecutions at the end of the day. By having prosecutions, a country is less of a draw to those who wish to exploit the situation or those who are most vulnerable. There is a lot of work happening in this space. It is important we can work together to make sure we achieve the overall objective here. The motion here today is about codifying much of the work that takes place already. It is about making sure that information sharing and work exchanging between An Garda Síochána and agencies is happening. It is about making sure we prosecute those who are responsible and that we support victims at every step of the way. I look forward to working with colleagues as we progress all of the other measures I have just outlined.

Question put and agreed to.