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African sex slaves forced to work in Irish brothels

Human trafficking is a growing problem in Ireland.

In a scene from the film "Trafficked," Ruth Negga plays Taiwo, an African woman trafficked to Ireland. (Courtesy of New Decade TV & Film Ltd)

DUBLIN, Ireland — A founder of the Irish Republic, Eamon de Valera, famously idealized Ireland 70 years ago as an innocent land of saints and scholars, whose villages were joyous with the laughter of happy maidens. If he came back today he would be shocked to find that a village in Ireland is just as likely to contain a brothel, populated by sex slaves from Africa.

Despite its isolation off the western edge of Europe, Ireland is now a destination for the trafficking of young women from Africa and eastern Europe to work as prostitutes.

Any illusions about the extent of the trafficking to Ireland were shattered by the exposure in a recent court case of the biggest vice ring in the country’s history. It involved a network of 48 brothels operating mostly outside the capital and making huge profits for the owners. The ring was discovered when police raided one establishment and found two young Nigerian women prepared to cooperate. Usually victims of trafficking are too frightened to seek help.

A new movie just released in Dublin called "Trafficked" also exposes the lives of these young women. It tells the story of Taiwo, an young African woman played by Ruth Negga, who escapes her kidnappers after being smuggled into Dublin Port. Without a passport or any English she ends up being exploited and corrupted in a brutal underworld of sex and drugs.

The film’s director, Ciaran O’Connor, told me that as a documentary filmmaker he has told the true story of the burgeoning sex industry in Ireland, but “I couldn't extract the back stories of the women or of the people who ran it.” He turned to drama to flesh out one fictional girl’s journey so as to offer an insight “into what some women consent to as they struggle to survive in this savage and unrelenting world.” Unfortunately, O'Connor added, most people in Ireland do not want to engage with or simply recognize trafficking as part of modern Irish society.

But the business of buying and selling women is flourishing in this country, according to Sara Benson, CEO of Ruhama, a Dublin-based organization that works with sexually-exploited women. She told the audience at the movie premier that Ruhama, Hebrew for "renewed life," has come across eight women in the last month who have been trafficked into Ireland. Some 100 of the 431 women helped by Ruhama during 2007 and 2008 were victims of traffickers and most were from Nigeria.

“What you will see in the film is happening right now in our cities, towns and small villages in our own country,” she said. “Nothing will change as long as long as there are people willing to trample on the victims’ human rights.”