NI Blog: Law Centre welcomes study on perceptions of organised crime and human trafficking



Liz Griffith
Liz Griffith

Liz Griffith, policy officer at Law Centre (NI), writes for Irish Legal News on a recent study by the Department of Justice.

Law Centre (NI) welcomes the publication by the Department of Justice of figures on public perceptions of organised crime and human trafficking in Northern Ireland. It is very useful to understand the public’s perceptions on this issue. According to the report:

  • Overall, 5.6% of respondents stated that they felt that human trafficking and modern slavery was very widespread throughout Northern Ireland, 14.6% that it was widespread and 39.7% fairly widespread, 35.5% not widespread and 4.6% that it did not occur.
  • 84.6% of respondents stated ‘sexual exploitation’, 71.7% stated ‘forced labour’ and 60.6% stated ‘forced begging’ were types of exploitation occurring in Northern Ireland.
  • Just over a quarter (26.8%) stated that they would recognise signs of human trafficking and modern slavery.

It seems that there is a fairly high awareness of human trafficking among the public in Northern Ireland. We attribute this to high profile public information campaigns such as the DOJ Blue Blind Fold campaign and to the efforts of the voluntary and community sector who are working tirelessly to raise awareness through a variety of innovative means.

The number of identified potential victims of trafficking in 2015 (the last available year of statistics) in Northern Ireland was 54. This was an increase of 18% from 2014. While these might seem like relatively small numbers, it is widely acknowledged that these figures represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and that many victims are not identified.

The public perceives sexual exploitation to be the largest type of human trafficking. In actual fact, labour exploitation accounts for almost two thirds of trafficking in Northern Ireland. Our understanding is that the majority of this labour exploitation occurs in legal sectors such as agriculture, food processing and fishing industries. This is confirmation that exploitation often occurs ‘hidden in plain sight’. For example, a mushroom farm might employ a number of workers most of were hired legitimately, but perhaps one or two were coerced into the work and receive no pay for their work.

More work needs to be done to understand why more of these cases are not identified (for example through other workers reporting it or through audits conducted by retailers).

The survey shows that unfortunately three quarters of those questioned do not think they could recognise the signs of trafficking. Thus more awareness raising needs to take place. However, in addition, our view is that strengthened worker rights – and robust enforcement – is a critical part of the solution. Any worker who thinks they are being exploited, or indeed any person who has concerns about a worker’s wellbeing, is welcome to contact the Law Centre’s daily employment advice line for free and confidential advice: 028 9024 4401, 9.30 – 1pm.

Respondents to the survey identified a number of factors that make people vulnerable to human trafficking including immigration. We agree that in some cases people are brought into the country illegally for the purposes of exploitation, and that traffickers use a person’s immigration status (or lack of) as a means of control. However, we are mindful that European and British/Irish nationals can also be victims of this crime (in fact, in 2015, the largest national group in Northern Ireland were Bulgarian).

Another problem is that some enforcement agencies are perhaps too quick to identify a person as an immigration offender rather than an exploited victim. For example, we have highlighted the fact that Border Force has identified just one potential victim of trafficking in three years despite being listed as a First Responder in the trafficking referral process. We have also repeatedly queried whether there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure victims of trafficking do not end up in immigration detention.

Immigration is an excepted matter (meaning it is under the control of Westminster), however, we believe that Northern Ireland’s government departments (including the Department of Justice, which has been so pro-active in addressing human trafficking) should at least seek to monitor immigration enforcement in this jurisdiction given the risk that victims are not being unidentified.

Perhaps another public perception (although not tested in this particular survey) is that, once identified, everything is straightforward for victims. It is certainly true that victims obtain comprehensive support while statutory agencies assess whether they are a victim. However, once a person is formally identified as a victim, much of the official support stops. This is despite the fact that victims of trafficking are often still engulfed in complicated immigration matters or perhaps are struggling to access benefits.

A recent Law Centre paper highlights the considerable difficulties for victims in obtaining legal redress (such as compensation) following their ordeal. Last year, our employment legal advisers helped several people receive compensation of £3,000 each, including a Filipino fisherman trafficked into Northern Ireland for exploitation. We wish to see a more robust system for compensation and redress. The Law Centre will be meeting with officials shortly and will highlight the need for a more victim-centred approach.