African sex slaves forced to work in Irish brothels

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.”

Statements given to police by six girls ages 15 to 21 who were held by the vice ring provide a glimpse of the brutal reality for the young women forced to come to Ireland and work as sex slaves. They typically were singled out in impoverished African villages and enticed to make the journey to Ireland using false passports on the promise of education or jobs.

Some of the prostitutes came from South America and were working willingly for the ring, which was run by Thomas Carroll and his wife Shamiela Clark, a former prostitute from South Africa. Clients in Ireland called a mobile number on the website for an Irish escort service and were directed by Clark to the nearest brothel, usually located in an innocuous-looking house or apartment on short-term lease. Clients were charged 160 euros ($200) for half an hour.

They operated from Castlemartin, a village in Wales, in the United Kingdom, where they thought they would be beyond the reach of the Irish police. But Carroll was arrested by U.K. police in December 2008 under a European warrant. He was making the equivalent of $1 million a year and had properties in five countries. In February, Carroll was sentenced to seven years in prison and Clark was given three and a half years.

According to Mark Phillips of the U.K. Serious Organized Crime Agency, “the first these girls knew they were going into a life of prostitution is when they were brought items of clothing, dropped off to a flat and got a phone call to say expect a male customer and do what you are told.”

Evidence given in court showed the women were often terrified of breaking a “juju” oath they were forced to take by witch doctors in their native villages, and were also being forced to pay back their travel costs, as much as $75,000.

Carroll's operation was not an isolated case. Earlier this month Mark McCormick of Newcastle, County Down, was sentenced to 36 months in prison for running six brothels in Dublin. Such cases are common now and more often than not involve the modern equivalent of African slaves.

Until two years ago there was no law in Ireland against trafficking. The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act, was enacted in 2008, but has yet to result in a successful prosecution. Trafficked women are nervous about going to the police. Without documents they can be detained in prison for violating immigration laws, and then deported back into the arms of the gangs that sent them to Ireland in the first place.