Home » Policy » Constructing the Big Bad Wolf in Northern Ireland

Constructing the Big Bad Wolf in Northern Ireland


In April 2012, Northern Ireland achieved its first trafficking conviction when Matyas Pis was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment followed by 18 months on licence (parole) at Belfast Crown Court. The Belfast Recorder (judge) was clear in his judgment: ‘…I want to take this opportunity to make it very clear that anyone who is brought before the courts in Northern Ireland for offences of this nature can, other than in exceptional circumstances, expect a custodial sentence.’ (While his comments are positive, one wonders what is meant by the term ‘exceptional circumstances’.)

For a society emerging from over 30 years of conflict, the presence of human trafficking could be considered a mark of the normalised criminal landscape in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is unique in the United Kingdom as it shares an international land border with another state, the Republic of Ireland; this, largely indiscernible, border potentially functions as an open gateway for illegal migration into the UK. This route has taken on a new significance for traffickers following increased security in place at UK airports; according to the 2012 US Trafficking in Persons report, this border has seen a rise in trafficking in 2011-2012.

The response of state agencies to trafficking here has been relatively slow; Northern Ireland as a site of both transit and destination does not seem to have been promptly addressed. For instance, it was only in July 2011 that an immigration detention centre was opened in Northern Ireland in Larne; previously, immigration detainees languished either in Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stations or in Northern Ireland’s prisons – the ‘lucky ones’ were shipped to the relevant dedicated facilities in Britain. The UK Border Agency opened an office in Northern Ireland in 2009. While this may reflect the fact that immigration was not an area devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly (meaning the Assembly cannot legislate on it, only the UK Government based at Westminster can introduce or amend existing legislation on this issue), it is indicative of a relatively apathetic government attitude toward trafficking in Northern Ireland. Similarly, the PSNI lack consistency in collecting statistics, as demonstrated through an examination of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests submitted by members of the public. For instance, in response to the question: ‘What information can the PSNI supply on its successes in detecting 1) Human trafficking victims 2) Brothels in NI in the past three years. I am particularly interested in geographical locations of detections.’ The PSNI stated:

In relation to successes in detecting any other Human Trafficking victims and brothels in NI in the past 3 (sic) years the information requested is not held centrally by PSNI and is therefore not easily accessible. To ascertain this information for Human Trafficking alone, for a three year period would necessitate contacting each of the Districts and some Headquarter Branches. Police electronic and manual systems would also have to be interrogated in order to identify the number of Human Trafficking cases detected and the locations etc. Once this information is extracted it would then have to be analysed in order to answer your request in full.

In response to another FoI request, relating to PSNI budgets dedicated to trafficking and levels of trafficking in Northern Ireland, they stated: ‘No information is available within the PSNI as to the projections or assessments on the scope or level of human trafficking in Northern Ireland. This particular criminal activity, committed by Organised Crime Gangs has seen victims being moved into, out of and within Northern Ireland for the purposes of exploitation.’ This is particularly interesting as it seems to show that despite having ‘no information’, they are able to state that this crime is undertaken by ‘organised crime gangs’, a description so vague as to be useless.  As an example, the Organised Crime Task Force define organised crime gangs as ‘a group of people involved in serious criminal activities for substantial profit’.

Luckily, over the last five years, a number of well-researched, insightful reports by academics and NGOs such as the Institute for Conflict Research (on behalf of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission) have been produced. This body of work provides a more coherent view of trafficking in Northern Ireland. However, one question remains overlooked in Northern Ireland (and globally): Who are the traffickers?

The most common claim is that trafficking in Northern Ireland is carried out by paramilitary groups, providing another source of criminal revenue (previously these groups funded their ‘war’ through the proceeds of fuel smuggling, drug dealing and extortion). [The designation of paramilitaries as organised crime gangs is contentious.] Where does this assertion come from? The answer is found in relatively few sources, which have been oft reported and repeated, yet with limited critical examination. Interestingly, the identification of the community of origin of the paramilitary carrying out this trafficking (eg Republican or Loyalist) ensures that the term ‘paramilitary organisation’ becomes even more amorphous.

A submission by Rebecca Dudley of Women’s Aid in 2006 to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, who found ‘anecdotal evidence from professionals that paramilitaries are involved in prostitution and human trafficking in Northern Ireland; but there is no defining evidence to prove this.’ This assertion was reinforced by Ann Campbell, also of Women’s Aid, who, in her oral evidence to the Committee commented, ‘The covert operations and secret operations and the types of trafficking and smuggling that have been going on in Northern Ireland for years, and there is a lot of expertise on that, are ripe for transfer to human trafficking. However, the extent to which this is the case is left open.’  These submissions were clear on the limited sources of information and the need for more research.

While a report by the Institute of Conflict Research does not explore in detail the identity or origin of traffickers in Northern Ireland, they do indicate the presence of local traffickers and cite a June 2009 case of trafficking in which one of the defendants was an ex-police officer from Northern Ireland. The report concludes, on this issue, that:

…there seems to be little evidence of direct involvement of paramilitaries in the transport of people across borders or internally, there are, however, indications of possible involvement in the facilitation of prostitution by providing protection to brothels in exchange for money. Interviews also revealed some concerns that the paramilitaries may play a larger role in supporting sexual exploitation than previously imagined. Considering the conflicting nature of the evidence, this aspect of trafficking in Northern Ireland remains speculative rather than definitive.

A report by the Department of Justice (DoJ) published in January 2011 entitled, Research paper investigating the issues for women in Northern Ireland involved in prostitution and exploring best practice elsewhere, cites the same sources and assertions as the Institute of Conflict Research (though confuses the assertions made by Ann Campbell and Rebecca Dudley). It adds to the ‘evidence’ base comments made by Anna Lo, a Member of the Assembly, in 2008 that trafficking in Northern Ireland was being carried out by paramilitary organisations and Chinese snakehead gangs. These comments were made at an event at Stormont but the source of her information is not defined. The DoJ report also mentions of a talk given by a PSNI Detective Inspector in 2006, where the speaker stated that brothels in Belfast may have connections to loyalist paramilitaries, though in the written record of the event, no specific link to trafficking is made. As a whole, the DoJ report represents a missed opportunity to effectively explore the relationship between prostitution and sex trafficking in Northern Ireland (it also points to the possible merits of a broader DoJ report on trafficking as a whole). It fails to add any concrete evidence of the identity of traffickers and instead indulges in sloppy referencing, an over-use of the concept of ‘rescuing’ women and the conflation between prostitution and sex trafficking.

A similar absence of evidence can be found in a report published by the Northern Ireland Assembly in June 2012 which failed to make much progress on the identity of Northern Ireland’s traffickers. The report simply cites a selection of the above sources, while commenting that it is difficult to say with certainty who is involved in trafficking, but ‘it is suggested that there is significant involvement of Chinese Snakehead gangs trafficking Chinese women and African, South American and East European women being trafficked by groups linked to organised crime and paramilitary organisations.’ This positing of Chinese snakehead gangs as a complementary set of ‘bad guys’ may find resonance in Anna Lo’s comments noted above, and point to the media extrapolation carried out in the DoJ report, but fails, as with assertions relating to paramilitary involvement, to find substantive evidence.

It is probable that the aforementioned groups are involved in the trafficking of people into Northern Ireland. However, this mythological picture of trafficking in Northern Ireland has been built and reinforced only due to persistently inadequate evidence, which has led to misguided, and likely ineffective, anti-trafficking efforts. An example of this is found with the only trafficking conviction in Northern Ireland: Matyas Pis was operating alone and was not ‘part of any criminal gang operating in Northern Ireland’. It is also worrying that there has been such limited progress in answering this question in the six years between the Women’s Aid research and that undertaken by the Assembly.

Just as the Singapore government appears obsessed with the concept of syndicates – shown in the National Action Plan, the Government’s recent response to the US Trafficking in Persons Report and media coverage of the issue – so Northern Ireland seems committed to the idea of trafficking as an activity undertaken by paramilitaries and, occasionally, Chinese criminal gangs. It may well be that these groups are responsible for trafficking into and through Northern Ireland. But until there is a more coherent commitment to understanding what trafficking looks like in this context, then surely efforts to address it will be limited. When it comes to traffickers, a broad view should be taken; for example, an influential report by the OSCE showed that traffickers included individuals operating alone, victims turned traffickers, family members trafficking other family members, and a range of criminal organisations from loosely operated networks to large scale international organized crime groups.



  1. Wendy Lyon says:

    Of interest… this report, “Forced labour in Northern Ireland: exploiting vulnerability” by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2011.

    It found evidence of threats and actual violence, restriction of movement/confinement, debt bondage, wage withholding, retention of passports and threats to reveal undocumented status…but said that the exploitation “was not particularly associated with human trafficking”. To my mind this is a rather blatant demonstration of the double standard that applies to trafficking for sexual vs. non-sexual exploitation. Surely, a migrant subject to those kinds of abuses in the sex sector would be regarded as a trafficked person.

    • TTRP says:

      Thanks for your comment. We agree with your point that there is a generally an overzealous need to categorize sex exploitation as trafficking in contrast to the caution which is often exercised about labour exploitation. The role of this report was, in my mind at least, an effort to carve out space for a consideration of exploited labour setting the scene if you like for further exploration. There is such a clear need for more research across all kinds of exploitation in trafficking that the ongoing hysteria on sex trafficking seems to hide.

  2. cattlemarket says:

    Pertinent comments. Undoubtedly most people in NI believe that paramilitaries of either/any hue have a hand in prostitution and therefore trafficking. We need more research and some hard facts from the police and the Borders Agency would be welcome.

  3. […] of trafficking cases.  We also published a number of posts on Northern Ireland, highlighting the lack of concrete information available on trafficking, the low conviction rate, the obsession with sex trafficking and the need […]

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