Good conquers evil, but awareness and action needed as Ireland is ‘disappointing’ on human trafficking, charity founder and Irish RSM sister tells Chai Brady
Ireland and Romania are the only countries in the EU that are on ‘tier two’ of a US watchlist due to inadequate responses taken to tackle human trafficking, which Pope Francis has called “an open wound on the body of contemporary society”.
The US annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2021 was published earlier this month and has served to highlight Ireland’s failings in the area.
The issue of human trafficking has not gone away during the pandemic but further moved underground, making it harder to identify, according to Sr Patricia O’Donovan RSM, who founded the anti-human trafficking charity Mecpaths.
“It is very disappointing. Ireland is really failing to meet the minimum standards of elimination of trafficking,” Sr O’Donovan told The Irish Catholic.
“In the Irish context, they identified 38 people trafficked in 2020, 26 sex trafficking and 12 in labour trafficking. The thing is, they identified 42 in 2019 and they identified 9 children. This year there were no children identified.
“The fact they are saying there were no children identified, that cannot be true. That really necessitates the work of Mecpaths which is really about raising awareness that child trafficking does exist. Our message, in relation to child trafficking, is: Know it, see it, and say it.
“Know the facts. Oftentimes we can turn a blind eye, and say ‘I didn’t see that, none of my business’. Know how to report. That’s really what our message is. The identification of human trafficking is very difficult but we need to know the signs, be alert.”
The TIP report stated that Ireland has continued to maintain inadequate victim protection efforts, with 2020 being the fourth consecutive year of decreasing victim identification and the fewest victims identified since 2013.
Looking at the issue of no children being identified as having been trafficked in 2020, the report stated that it may have been due to the Office of the Department of Public Prosecution’s 2018 decision to reclassify child trafficking victims as victims of sexual exploitation, which consequently excluded children from trafficking statistics.
“The [TIP] report clearly states that ‘Traffickers subject Irish children to sex trafficking within the country’ which demonstrates the increased need for awareness training and victim identification, especially for child victims in this country,” said Sr O’Donovan.
“Mecpaths exists in order to raise awareness of the presence of human trafficking in Ireland, especially the trafficking of children for exploitation, to educate around the signs that may indicate a child is or has been trafficked and to know the mechanisms available to report a concern or case of child trafficking.”
Ireland has not demonstrated an overall increase in efforts “even considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity”, regarding victim identification, the TIPs report stated.
Sr O’Donovan said: “Definitely 2020 has been a time of heightened vulnerability and children definitely are being trafficked. Child trafficking is happening, it is difficult to identify under normal times, much more so now during the pandemic.
“I think it’s got worse during the pandemic; it has gone undercover. Do traffickers ever stop? I don’t think so. A phrase we often use with human trafficking, child trafficking, is it’s hidden in plain sight. I think it’s certainly hidden during this present pandemic.”
It is estimated that the human trafficking industry generates €128 billion per year worldwide and that 40.3 million people remain trapped as victims.
Sr O’ Donovan and Sr Mary Ryan established Mecpaths in 2013 after attending a UN conference focusing on violence against women and girls.
Sr O’Donovan said: “We attended many workshops and presentations but one of the ones that spoke to both of us was a presentation given by a CEO of a US hotel chain and he spoke about hotels being possible venues of trafficking of all people, including child trafficking.
“That was something new to us, I’m talking about 2013. I suppose as a Mercy Congregation our focus has been very much with women and children so the issue of child trafficking really was not being addressed in Ireland at the time and we felt there could be a possibility that this was happening in hotels in Ireland.
“Also, at the time I had very young nieces and nephews, they were 3-4, and I thought ‘My God, this is horrendous stuff’,” she said.
From that moment the two sisters felt motivated to spread awareness about the issue of child trafficking and the forms it takes in Ireland. After a conversation with the leadership team, they were given the green light.
“Some of the sisters got involved by visiting local hotels, we made out a programme as to what to do and we actually had the first meeting with hoteliers and general managers which took place in January 2014 in the Department of Justice at Stephen’s Green and that was hosted by the anti-human trafficking unit. That was our first meeting with hoteliers.
“They came from all over the country that day. There were people there who were amazed, saying, ‘Could this possibly happen?’ That was the beginning of it really and it has developed hugely since that time.” Mecpaths are currently engaged in the delivery of anti-human trafficking training across the country for front-line professionals working in the areas of healthcare, social work, law enforcement and immigration.
They are dedicated to supporting the hospitality industry and services sectors and have forged working relationships with hoteliers and hotel groups since its inception.
Their focus on training staff in the hospitality industry is due to the fact that they work in a sector in which they are more likely to encounter a victim of child trafficking.
According to Mecpaths, traffickers can take advantage of the privacy and anonymity that hotels and accommodation providers offer, using these unwitting venues to sexually exploit children. Within the services sectors, many companies who provide products and services are uniquely placed to engage and interact with children and young persons who may be at-risk of being trafficked.
Training people in this sector is “crucial” when it comes to identifying child trafficking, Sr O’Donovan said.
“I remember when I started talking about human trafficking, people said: ‘Human trafficking, that doesn’t happen here in Ireland.’ So really our big thing was about raising awareness. What we have done is organise workshops for hotels – our big focus at the beginning was hotels – and we brought them on board.”
Mecpaths also works in direct partnership with, and provides training to hospitality training colleges, frontline professionals and industries (airline, taxis, security), universities, and private industries, to raise awareness and help to protect children from exploitation.
On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, July 30, they will officially launch an online e-learning platform for the various industries they work with, as well as for the general public.
There is no one indicator that can be used to make someone certain a child is being trafficked, with Sr O’Donovan saying one sign could be the child is exhibiting distress, fear and anxiety.
She says there may be “very little interaction – dissociation to avoidance of interaction with others. Maybe there is restricted or controlled communications and freedom of movement within the hotel or their checking into the room appears coerced”.
Regarding hotels specifically, she says it could be that a guest is occupying a room with a minor and they may not have originally registered with the minor, or the same person might have booked multiple rooms and there are children there. It could also be that “individuals are leaving rooms infrequently and the children are not being let out of the room, or the cleaning staff not allowed into the room to clean,” Sr O’Donovan explains.
“Housekeeping are very important because they see what’s happening if they go in to clean the room. There may be refusals of cleaning services for multiple, successive days.”
Prior to Covid-19, conversations had begun in exploring ways of moving Mecpaths’ training from face-to-face classroom style learning to e-learning. This was accelerated as Covid 19 restrictions would not allow face-to-face meetings. In March 2020, Mecpaths launched an accredited module on human trafficking with Maynooth University (Applied Social Studies).
The aim is to ensure adherence to international best practice when it comes to the hospitality industry’s global efforts to counter child trafficking. This is achieved through the development of learning materials in alignment with the existing curriculum. They also work with students at Cork Institute of Technology, Shannon College of Hotel Management, Technological University Dublin (formerly Dublin Institute of Technology) and Griffith College.
“Despite lockdown, Mecpaths has increased its outreach substantially… people have gathered virtually to learn more about human trafficking be it through webinars, trainings to hospitality colleges, third level colleges etc. Many, including members of the public have availed of the opportunity to learn more,” Sr O’Donovan said.
Asked about what influenced her passion for social justice and what called her to religious life, Sr O’Donovan said: “As a young person I had a desire to create a better world. I went to school to Mercy Sisters in Clonakilty, Co Cork. I was inspired by their lives of prayer and how they helped people, particularly those in need within the local community.
“At the age of 21 in preparation for my first profession, I learnt that the heart of our Mercy life is ‘Union with God and love of those in need’. This very much resonated with my own desire for my life then and continues to inspire me today.”
Pope Francis has been a “huge support” in the fight against human trafficking, Sr O’Donovan said. “It is one of the most horrendous crimes in the world and it’s right across the whole world: I think particularly child trafficking, when you think of the vulnerability of a child. So I think it’s wonderful that the Pope is very passionate about it and all through his years of papacy has highlighted it and is highlighting it.
“There is goodness, and goodness does conquer evil but I think we all have our part to play and I think if we play our part, goodness will overcome that evilness.
“As a congregation we are getting more elderly and I have asked them to pray for victims of trafficking and traffickers as well and we have issued a prayer card to communities and to any other people who may wish to pray for the victims of the trafficking and certainly the members of the congregations are very interested in that and do pray.
“Even though we may not always be able to do the work we are, as a congregation, supporting it, it is a project we feel very, very passionately about: the vulnerability of women and particularly children.”
According to Mecpaths, Some of the indicators of child trafficking include:
- Signs of distress, fear, anxiety, submission or nervousness.
- Signs of disassociation or avoidance of interaction with others.
- No freedom of movement or being constantly monitored.
- Treated in a demanding or aggressive manner.
- No knowledge of current and/or past whereabouts.
- Signs of malnourishment, poor hygiene, fatigue, untreated illness, injuries and or unusual behaviours.
- Individuals leaving room infrequently, not at all, or at odd hours.
- Guest has few or no personal possessions for a prolonged stay.
- Looks intimidated and behaves in a way that does not correspond with behaviours typical of children their age.
- Avoids eye contact and interactions with others.