Esmond Birnie MLA UUP South Belfast (and UUP Spokesman for Children and the Family)

BELFAST, Ireland, August 29, 2006 ( –“Wednesday 23 August was the International Day to Remember the Abolition of the slave trade. Two hundred years ago William Wilberforce, after decades of political struggle, finally secured a majority in Parliament to make slave trading illegal within the British Empire. It was to be another 27 years, 1834, before he similarly achieved legislation to ban any ownership of slaves. The USA took another 30 years after that to end slavery and fought the Civil War on this issue. Sadly, modern slavery still exists. Back in June 2006 NIO Minister Paul Goggins told MPs that Northern Ireland faced a “new form of slavery” as the growing number of women trafficked by criminal networks (mainly) for prostitution was becoming “more pressing”.

Trafficking (movements of people, mainly from the Third World or the former Soviet countries, and involving some degree of deception, coercion or exploitation) is a big business possibly valued at $ 7 billion annually (only the illegal arms and drugs trades are bigger than that) and having 800,000 victims every year (a US State Department estimate). The victims of trafficking are mostly vulnerable women and children.

A recent study (2005) for Women’s Aid Federation in the course of just a month of research uncovered up to 70 individual cases of trafficking in Northern Ireland. In recent years I have become aware of a number of cases of probable trafficking to the vice trade here in South Belfast (e.g. abuse of educational visas which were meant to allow people from the former Communist bloc come to UK schools and colleges, illegal movements back and forth across the Irish Border).

People trafficking is a despicable trade spreading misery across the globe. Here in Northern Ireland (and Belfast in particular) we have an imperative to stop the huge growth in the “sex industry” which fuels the demand for imported women. That growth would best be contained by a zero tolerance attitude towards those who purchase commercial sex.

People in Northern Ireland should use the opportunity of the current review of sexual offences legislation to call on the government to act in this way. After all, returning to the theme of the original trans-Atlantic slave trade, eighteenth century Belfast had the honourable distinction of being one of the few port cities in the British Isles which refused to participate in that form of human trafficking.


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