Working together to protect the vulnerable

Louise McCarthytalks to the project manager of a campaign working with the hospitality sector to combat child sex trafficking

Pope Francis used his New Year message to condemn slavery and human trafficking saying in his first Mass of 2015 that everyone has a God-given right to be free.

Ruth Kilcullen, project manager for MECPATHS (Mercy Efforts to Counter Child Prostitution and Trafficking in the Hospitality Sector), recently met Pope Francis at an international youth symposium on human trafficking in the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The two-day conference brought together young people from all over the world who are actively engaged in anti-trafficking work to share their insights into this complex issue, and the challenges and successes they have experienced in their work.

Ruth presented a paper at the conference outlining the origins and progress of the MECPATHS campaign, and the nature of combating human trafficking in the hospitality sector in general.

Pope Francis welcomed the awareness campaign and when he addressed the conference, he emphasised the importance of “an international collaboration in ending human trafficking”.

“It was really encouraging to see the level of interest our campaign generated, and the enthusiasm with which other anti-trafficking activists were considering how such a campaign could work in their own country, and how we could work together to bring that about,” Ruth says.

MECPATHS is a project of the Sisters of Mercy to raise awareness of child sex trafficking. It aims to provide anti-human trafficking awareness-raising resources and training to hotels so they can train their staff in how to spot the signs of trafficking and how to report their concerns to the authorities.

The initiative has drawn up the Protocol of Best Practices in Suspected Cases of Child Trafficking in Hotels in conjunction with the Gardai, Department of Justice, Child and Family Agency (Tusla), and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This protocol provides guidelines for managers and staff when suspicions are raised that there might be a victim of child trafficking in their hotel.

Incidents of child sex trafficking are on the increase in Ireland with provisional data provided by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald in January showing that 30 prosecutions were taken between 2013 and 2014 in relation to the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation.

This is a marked increase on previous years where there had been around four prosecutions on average annually between 2009 and 2011.

Ruth points out that the criminal gangs engaged in the trade of humans are “highly organised across borders and regions” and that their success needs “sophisticated and extensive networks”. Breaking this network requires co-operation and awareness-raising across society, but hotels have a particularly significant role to play.


“Hotels appeal to sex traffickers because they offer a level of anonymity,” Ruth says. “Hotel staff are in a unique position to notice certain indicators of sex trafficking.”

MECPATHS encourages hotel staff to report any suspicious activity involving a child.

“The duty manager has to make the call. Is there enough of a reason to get the police involved? There is a life in the balance. If the manager says nothing and lets the child walk out of the hotel, then there may be many years of untold suffering for that child,” Ruth says.

Since the hotel awareness campaign began, MECPATHS has engaged with over 100 hotels around Ireland. A presentation is given to human resources personnel with the aim of enabling them to train all members of the hotel staff. Plans to start training staff in several hotels around the country got underway in January and the aim is that within the coming months, every Irish hotel will be training staff to watch out for child trafficking.

An eye-opener

Ruth cautions that Irish children can be at risk of sex trafficking and that this is an issue that we all need to be aware of.

“Many people don’t realise that it is going on in Ireland, involving Irish children. In 2014 the US State Department published a report identifying Ireland as a source, transit and destination country – this is an eye-opener. Before this, Ireland was not generally recognised as a source country,” she says.

Ruth warns that social media is leaving children open to sexual grooming.

She points out that young Irish girls may be lured into a romantic relationship with a trafficker, warning that the traffickers search social media picking up on a child’s vulnerabilities, manipulating them and grooming them for sex.

“These traffickers are incredibly savvy. They pick up on clues that the child is experiencing isolation. Young people can often be trafficked by someone they have been tricked into falling in love with. It is vital that young people, parents and teachers are made aware of this issue,” Ruth says.

 “Young people appeal to traffickers because they may be easier to deceive and manipulate. They may be offered a loving relationship and are provided with a sense of love and stability which they may not have had before. This is a huge challenge for parents, they need to be aware of what their children are doing online,” Ruth says.

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