Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Suspected human trafficking victims discovered in Newtownhamilton raid

There has been widespread shock at the discovery of 16 suspected human trafficking victims during a police raid in Newtownhamilton last week.

The group were rescued on Friday 17th July during a police operation in Newtownhamilton  which focused on workers in the agricultural sector.  They comprised of both men and women aged between 18 and 45.

Five more potential victims were identified in a separate operation in Belfast.

Both operations were led by detectives from the PSNI Human Trafficking Unit, assisted by HM Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the Health and Safety Executive.

All 21 people rescued are from eastern Europe and had come to Northern Ireland for work but, police believe, they may have become victims of forced labour or exploitation.  They are now in the care of police, Migrant Help and Women’s Aid.

Det Ch Insp Douglas Grant, from the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch, said the Newtownhamilton operation was part of an investigation into human trafficking for suspected forced labour.

“The victims are eastern European nationals, we believe they came to Northern Ireland seeking work and were subsequently exploited,” he said.

Commenting on one of the largest operations mounted by police in the last year, the officer said that, due to the numbers involved, some of whom were “very distressed,” and the additional translation difficulties, “it will take some time to form a clear picture of what exactly has taken place.”

He confirmed that police were following a number of definite lines of inquiry and that the  investigation to “establish how these people came to Northern Ireland and the arrangements under which they were working” would continue for some time.

“Any evidence of illegal activity will be brought before the courts,” he added before urging employers in every sector of business to ensure they are operating within the law in terms of accessing labour and offering employees appropriate terms and conditions.”

Sinn Féin MLA for the area Megan Fearon said she believed migrants are being used “to maximise the profits of unscrupulous gangs” and that the discovery of a possible trafficking operation on such a scale “highlights the extent to which this vile trade has become a major problem across the western world and shows that Ireland has not escaped its impact.”

Ms Fearon called for more co-operation between the Police and Immigration Services as well as Departments of Health and Justice across Europe to tackle the issue of human trafficking and said an all-Ireland approach was necessary “to successfully halt this form of human slavery.” “Policing is key to resolving the problem and there needs to be a harsher approach against those who exploit these vulnerable people for their own gain.”

Area councillor Barra Ó Muirí said the discovery “really shows why human trafficking is known as ‘the invisible crime.”

“For a possible trafficking operation of this scale to be found in a small, rural village in south Armagh, it really brings home the reality of this crime; that it isn’t limited to larger countries or major cities, it could be happening anywhere.”

Mr O’Muiri said the issue needed to be tackled on a local and national scale.

“Nationally, we need to see the authorities north and south working together to combat this dreadful crime.  Locally, people need to be vigilant and aware that this can happen where you least expect it and closer to home than you might think.

“I’d urge anyone with information about human trafficking or who is a victim of trafficking to contact the PSNI or Gardai.”