471 victims of human trafficking have been identified in Ireland since 2013.[1] Despite these figures human trafficking remains on the periphery of Irish public consciousness, primarily due to its hidden nature.[2] The issue of human trafficking is relevant not only to law enforcement, but also public policy as it is driven and shaped by socio-economic factors. Therefore, in addition to policing, socio-economic policy must also be considered when examining human trafficking and the State’s response.

Guiding Values: Human Rights

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide the framework for upholding the dignity of victims of trafficking. Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, and Article 4 explicitly prohibits slavery. Article 13 defends the freedom of movement, and Articles 23 and 24 acknowledge the right to freedom from exploitation in work.[3] These human rights underpins the Irish State’s legal and administrative response to trafficking.

Historical and Global Context


Human trafficking was defined in the 2000 UN (Palermo) Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons[4], which outlines three distinct elements: The act of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons; The means used include the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments; The purpose of exploitation such as sexual or labour exploitation etc.[5] According to the Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland: Annual Report for 2018: ‘Trafficking in human beings is a high profit–low risk crime based upon the principles of supply and demand. Criminal networks or individuals take advantage of a series of what are known as ‘push and pull’ factors […] This, in combination with the demand for cheap labour and sexual services, fuels human trafficking’[6]

Global Context

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime notes: ‘Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.’[7] Yet effective anti-trafficking efforts are in decline, with a 42% fall in prosecutions globally since 2015, and a 52% fall in Europe. Meanwhile, research indicates officially identified victims only represents between 2% and 5% of the true figure[8]: ‘20,532 men, women and children were registered as victims of trafficking in the EU in 2015-2016. However, the actual number is likely to be significantly higher as many victims remain undetected.’[9]

Irish Context

In Ireland, 64 victims of human trafficking were identified in 2018, including 35 victims of labour exploitation, 27 victims of sexual exploitation and two victims of forced criminality. Similar numbers were identified previously: 62 in 2015, 75 in 2016, and 75 in 2017.[10] However, only 42 victims of trafficking were identified in 2019; a significant drop from the 64 identified in 2018, and the lowest number since 2013.[11] Moreover, the numbers identified are likely only a fraction of the true figure. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there were approximately 8,000 victims of trafficking in Ireland in 2018.[12]

Despite these numbers there have been no convictions for human trafficking offences since 2013, even though the government has reported identifying 471 victims in that time.[13] Furthermore, authorities do not presently identify trafficking effectively: according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), ‘one of the main pieces lacking in Ireland’s response to trafficking is proactive identification.’[14] As a result, trafficking remains largely hidden and the true extent of the problem unaddressed. The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2019 notes, ‘chronic deficiencies in victim identification, referral, and assistance.’[15] Commenting on this MECPATHS stated: ‘the report outlines Ireland’s continued under-responsiveness and highlights an unchanging climate in the country.’[16] Ireland was subsequently downgraded to Tier Two Watch List on the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020.[17]

Legal, Administrative and Political Context

Legal Context

Ireland’s anti-trafficking efforts are governed by legislation: the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) (Amendment) Act 2013, and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. The 2008 Act introduced the crime of human trafficking into Irish criminal law.[18] The 2017 Act criminalises the purchase of sex, and was introduced due to the ‘effectiveness of using the criminal law to tackle demand for prostitution and in reducing trafficking.’[19]

Administrative Context

Responsibility for coordinating anti-trafficking efforts lies with the Department of Justice’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU), established in 2008. An Garda Síochána (AGS) holds the role of Competent Authority for identification of suspected victims.[20] [21] While AGS can receive victim referrals from any source, only they have the authority to formally identify victims; front-line responders and NGOs have no formal role in victim identification.[22] Rather disturbingly, according to the TIP Report for 2020, AGS ‘lacked consistent standards when assessing victims; anti-trafficking efforts varied widely throughout the country; there was no consistently used formal referral mechanism for all police units for sex trafficking victims.’[23] The 2016 Second National Action Plan to Prevent and Combat Human Trafficking in Ireland[24] outlines 65 actions for implementation. However, the Action Plan has no timeframe, budget allocation, or indication of agencies responsible for its implementation, and according to the TIP Report for 2020, ‘It was uncertain whether the government followed its national anti-trafficking action plan’.[25] In 2019, a Transformation Programme initiated in the Department introduced new structures including a “policy function” and “transparency function”, both of which absorb work previously undertaken by the AHTU.[26] This restructuring raises concerns that diffused responsibility may reduce the coherence and focus of already underperforming anti-trafficking efforts: no convictions have been obtained since the 2013 amendment, and no prosecutions were initiated in 2018.[27]

Political Context

Civil society groups engage in policy advocacy, and have impacted the shaping of legislation, as was the case with the 2017 Turn Off the Red Light Campaign[28], which successfully sought to criminalise the purchase of sex. Broadly, however, there is little “political debate” around trafficking, and how best to respond is mainly an administrative question relating to priority-setting and resource allocation: human trafficking was mentioned in 88 parliamentary questions in 2019, most of which can be described as relating to implementation.[29] According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), underperformance is due to ‘a lack of political will or lack of urgency on the issue and associated resources to match that.[30]

Economic Context

Trafficking is an economic activity, albeit criminal, and linked to labour exploitation in Ireland in: ‘restaurant and hotel work, domestic work, construction, agriculture and entertainment.’[31] Between 2013 and 2017, 111 people were trafficked into labour exploitation (and a further 5 victims were trafficked for both sexual and labour exploitation.)[32] Of 64 victims identified in 2018, 35 (55%) were trafficked for labour exploitation: 16 in the fishing industry, 10 in farming, 6 in domestic servitude, and 3 in car washes. Undocumented workers in the fishing industry and domestic workers, particularly au pairs, are especially vulnerable to trafficking.[33]

Government Response

The 2019 TIP Report (reporting the on the period of 2018) found that, ‘government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor.’[34] The efforts to reduce demand for labour trafficking can be seen to have worsened in 2019, when only 3 of 39 trafficking investigations were for labour trafficking.[35] In fact, according to the 2020 TIP Report: ‘The government significantly decreased efforts to identify victims of forced labor’.[36] The number of labour inspections conducted by the Workplace Relations Commission fell from 5,700 in 2018 to 4,800 in 2019. Furthermore, they did not report identifying any trafficking victims: ‘While the WRC did convict several employers for employment-related offenses, they did not report investigating any companies for labor trafficking.’[37]

Fishing Industry

In the fishing industry, the Workplace Relations Commission, An Garda Síochána (AGS), and the International Transport Federation, are engaged in victim identification. Employment rights have been partly addressed through the Atypical Working Scheme[38]: this scheme guarantees the national minimum wage, and requires employers to provide legally binding contracts.[39] However, UN rapporteurs were critical of the scheme, stating ‘undocumented workers [were] particularly vulnerable.’[40]

Domestic Service

Agencies who recruited domestic workers under the designation of “au pairs”, go unregulated as they can work up to 20 hours per week without a work permit. NGOs have reported that: ‘employers regularly paid au pairs less than minimum wage and forced them to violate the 20 hours of work per week maximum, creating vulnerability to labor trafficking.’[41]

Hospitality Sector

Trafficking also intersects with the hospitality sector, using the privacy of hotel accommodation for sexual exploitation. Hotels, with the support of NGOs such as MECPATHS, are increasingly taking ‘a proactive approach to counter Child Trafficking by prioritising training for their staff.’[42] While this signals progress, gaps remain that need to be closed.

Social and Cultural Context

Human trafficking disproportionately impacts on migrants and women. Between 2014 and 2018, 46% of suspected victims came from the European Economic Area, 34% from Africa, and 11% from Asia.[43] Globally, 96% of all victims of human trafficking are women and girls.[44] Of 283 victims of trafficking in Ireland between 2013 and 2017, 183 were female, 99 male, and 1 trans: ‘for every male detected there were approximately two females.’[45] Of the 42 victims identified in 2019, 38 were female (including 7 children) and 4 were male (including 2 children).[46] In particular, the TIP Report for 2020 noted that, ‘Women from Eastern Europe who are forced into marriage in Ireland are at risk for sex trafficking and forced labor.’[47]

Sex Trafficking

2008 research revealed a ‘highly lucrative industry worth approximately €180 million and easily accessible indoor prostitution in every part of Ireland’[48] In the EU, sexual exploitation accounts ‘for over half (56%) of registered victims of trafficking in human beings.’[49] Between 2013 and 2017, 137 of 283 trafficking victims in Ireland were trafficked into sexual exploitation, amounting to half of all trafficking, with a further 5 victims trafficked for both sexual and labour exploitation.[50] The Implementation of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, Part IV – An Interim Review noted that, ‘on average 438 women either moved or were moved every week revealing the level of organisation and control within the sex trade.’[51]

Not only are the majority of female victims of trafficking exploited in the sex trade, but in general prostitution in Ireland primarily exploits migrant women, many of whom have been trafficked: ‘an overwhelming majority of women in prostitution are migrant women […] many may be undocumented.’[52] Migrant women and girls who are victims of other forms of trafficking, such as domestic work, are also particularly vulnerability to being coerced or exploited in the sex trade.[53] Given the integration of trafficking and the sex trade, there is a clear need for emphasis on sexual exploitation. Instead, as Ruhama notes, ‘there has been very limited success in recent years in relation to either trafficking or large-scale organised prostitution investigations making it to trial. […] no convictions have been secured under Part 4 of the [Sexual Offences Act].’[54]

Clearly, the demand for trafficking is closely linked with the demand for prostitution: ‘one in 15 men in Ireland have paid for sex.’[55] Research has found that ‘buyers are well informed about trafficking in women but ignore it when buying.’[56] Evidently, there is a culture of permissiveness, and an attitude of indifference to the rights of women and children. Such a culture of indifference points to the need for strong deterrents to reduce the demand for prostitution, and resultant trafficking.

Forced Criminality

Presently, the law does not protect victims from prosecution for forced criminality as a result of being trafficked, and indeed victims go unidentified: ‘Vietnamese and Chinese individuals who are convicted for cannabis cultivation often report indicators of forced labor, such as document retention, restriction of movement, and non-payment of wages.’[57] There is also a manifest lack of clarity in this area: ‘NGOs noted the process for victims to seek immunity from punishment for criminal activity as a result of trafficking was complex and required early legal representation.’[58] Indeed in 2015, the high court found a need for protocols or legislation that govern what happens when a trafficking victim is suspected of criminal activity.[59] Disturbingly, the TIP Report for 2020 reported that ‘NGOs noted instances where trafficking victims were persuaded to plead guilty to commercial sex-related charges because they did not fully understand their legal protections.’[60]

Victim Supports

The State’s response to victims of trafficking raises questions about coherence and fair treatment. The formal identification scheme applies only to those who do not have legal residency in Ireland, excluding EEA nationals and asylum-seekers.[61] [62] The National Referral Mechanism provides for the rights of trafficking victims: ‘this includes accommodation, medical services, legal aid and advice, amongst other supports.’[63] However, the State’s provision for those rights is inadequate, particularly given the gendered nature of sex trafficking: victims ‘are frequently accommodated by the government’s Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) [where there is often an] absence of gender-specific accommodation.’[64]


Human trafficking is not merely a breach of the law, it is a serious violation of human dignity, involving people who are: ‘traded as commodities; bought, sold, exploited and raped around the world for profit. They are isolated, intimidated, sold into debt bondage and subject to physical and sexual assault by their traffickers. Most live under constant mental and physical threat. Many suffer severe emotional trauma, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and disassociation. These victims are hidden in plain sight. They are living in our communities, in our towns and villages.’[65] Until comprehensive strategies for detection, identification, referral, assistance of victims, and prosecution and conviction of traffickers, are put in place, the victims of human trafficking will continue to remain hidden and trapped in slavery.


[1] Trafficking in Persons Report, (Washington DC: Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, US Department of State, 2020), retrieved:, p. 270

[2] MECPATHS, Human-trafficking in Ireland, retrieved from on 20 February 2020:

[3] See

[4] See

[5] Department of Justice and Equality, Trafficking Explained, retrieved from on 5 May 2020:

[6] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland: Annual Report, (Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality, 2018)  p. 5

[7] UNODC, What is Human Trafficking, retrieved from on 25 April 2020:  

[8] Hennessy, M., ‘You’re not screening for them’: Concern that trafficked children are falling through cracks, (, 23 February 2020), retrieved on 6 July 2020:

[9] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2018)  p. 13

[10] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2018) pp. 2, 9

[11] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 270

[12] The Walk Free Foundation, Country Data Ireland, retrieved from  on 25 April 2020: 

[13] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 270

[14] Hennessy, ‘You’re not screening for them’

[15] Trafficking in Persons Report, (Washington DC: Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, US Department of State, 2019), retrieved:, p. 251

[16] MECPATHS, Ireland Retains ‘Tier 2’ Status as Annual TIP’s Report Launched, retrieved from on 2 April 2020:

[17] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 269

[18] Department of Justice and Equality, retrieved from on 6 May 2020:

[19] Shannon, D. G., The Implementation of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, Part IV – An Interim Review, (Dublin: High Level Working Group, 2020) p. 4

[20] Department of Justice and Equality, retrieved from on 5 May 2020:

[21] Department of Justice and Equality, retrieved from on 28 April 2020:

[22] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 271

[23] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 271

[24] Second National Action Plan to Prevent and Combat Human Trafficking in Ireland: Executive Summary, (Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality, 2016)

[25] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 272

[26] Transformation Programme: Briefing, (Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality, 2019)

[27] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2019), p. 251

[28] Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (2017), retrieved from on 5 July 2020:

[29] Oireachtas Éireann, Parliamentary Questions, retrieved from on 7 May 2020:

[30] Hennessy, ‘You’re not screening for them’

[31] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2018) p. 5

[32] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland: Annual Report, (Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality, 2017) p. 8

[33] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2019), p. 253

[34] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2019), p. 253

[35] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 270

[36] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 270

[37]  Ibid, p. 272

[38] Santa Marta Group, Ireland Report (May, 2018), retrieved from on 6 July 2020:

[39] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2017) p. 15

[40] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2019), p. 253

[41]  Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 272

[42] MECPATHS, How does Child Trafficking interest with the hospitality industry? retrieved from on 7 May 2020:

[43] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2018) p. 10

[44] Cork Against Human Trafficking, About, retrieved from on 15 April 2020:

[45] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2017) pp. 5-6

[46] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 270

[47] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 272

[48] Shannon, An Interim Review, p. 5

[49] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2018) p. 13

[50] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2017) p. 8

[51] Shannon, An Interim Review, p. 5

[52] Shannon, An Interim Review, p. 8

[53] Ruhama, Submission to CEDAW on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Migration, (Dublin: Ruhama, 2019)

[54] Ruhama, Ruhama Policy Submission: Policing Authority Priorities 2019, (Dublin: Ruhama, 2018)

[55] Shannon, An Interim Review, p. 6

[56] Shannon, An Interim Review, p. 6

[57] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 272

[58] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2020), p. 271

[59] Ibid, p. 272

[60] Ibid, p. 271

[61] Trafficking in Persons Report, (2019), p. 252

[62] Ruhama, Submission to the Thematic Report on Innovative and Transformative Models of Social Inclusion for Victims of Trafficking, (Dublin: Ruhama, 2019)

[63] Trafficking in Human Beings in Ireland, (2017) p. 15

[64] Ruhama, Submission to the Thematic Report

[65] Cork Against Human Trafficking, About