POLICE investigating human trafficking and prostitution have carried out searches at a number of locations in the Cookstown and Dungannon areas in recent months, a leading PSNI Chief has said.
Detective Superintendent Philip Marshall, from the PSNI’s Organised Crime Branch, made the revelation during an event aimed at raising awareness of what he said was a growing problem which was generating “huge criminal benefit” for the gangs involved.
Representatives from a number of local community organisations - including the charity Women’s Aid - were present at the meeting, along with Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA, Lord Maurice Morrow; Dungannon Mayor, Cllr Kenneth Reid; and SDLP councillors Jim Cavanagh (Torrent) and Tony Quinn (SDLP).
Detective Superintendent Marshall told the audience that, as a police officer with more than 20 years experience, he was still “scared” by human trafficking, through which, he said: “People are literally being bought and sold as slaves and as commodities.”
Describing the crime as “high yield and low risk”, Detective Superintendent Marshall added: “Prostitution is here in County Tyrone. It is organised crime and huge criminal benefit is being made from this in Tyrone.”
Speaking to the media afterwards, Detective Superintendent Marshall declined to discuss exact details of PSNI operations to tackle this type of crime locally, but stated: “We have carried out investigations into human trafficking and prostitution in Co Tyrone within the last twelve to eighteen months.
Recently we have carried out searches in a number of locations across Northern Ireland, including Dungannon and Cookstown.”
During his presentation to the audience, DS Marshall explained that, since April 2011, some 26 people have been recovered by police investigating human trafficking.
Among those 26, 18 had been victims of sexual exploitation and, according to DS Marshall, that figure is “only the tip of the iceberg”.
Appealing to the audience members to help raise awareness of the issue throughout the community,
DS Marshall said there was a need for police and local organisations to work together to debate and educate others about the problems facing those victims.
DS Marshall continued: “Dungannon and Tyrone have a large and vibrant ethnic community from various parts of Europe and other countries. There are approximately 6,000 migrant workers here now.
“Potentially, there are a lot of individuals who will have been victims of exploitation, but there are more out there.”
DS Marshall was asked by Lord Maurice Morrow - who has recently lodged a draft bill on human trafficking at Stormont - whether it would be helpful to implement legislation similar to that in force in Sweden in a bid to tackle the rising problem.
Lord Morrow added that he had worked with police in Dungannon two years ago to have premises operating for illegal purposes closed down, but stressed that it was a slow process to do so.
Replying, DS Marshall said that, while the Swedish legislation had changed the dynamic of the market there, it “has not solved the problem”.
“Is legislation the right way to solve the problem? Well, it is part of the solution, but I believe a bigger part of that solution is to educate society in Northern Ireland.”
Pointing to increased training programmes across the PSNI, DS Marshall concluded by calling on community representatives, MLAs and councillors to “have a discussion about this. Dispel the myth and talk about the reality.”
Meanwhile, the issue of human trafficking was raised during a sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly recently, when the Justice Minister, David Ford, outlined the assistance available to people who are rescued from such situations.
Mr Ford said that service includes safe and appropriate accommodation, help with day-to-day living and travel costs, information in a language victims can understand, help to access healthcare and other services around support, immigration, advice and counselling.
The support service is provided by Women’s Aid and Migrant Helpline.
All child victims of trafficking are entitled to the full range of services afforded to ‘looked after children’ under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.