Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

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The Woman On A Mission To Bring An End To Child Trafficking In Ireland

This article was written by Bronwyn O’Neill and was first published in EVOKE.ie

When little Sam* was found in a car wash with chemical burns on his hands, the sight was haunting. Rather than being out playing with his friends or doing his homework, the young boy was being forced to work or face horrifying physical abuse.

This harrowing story of child trafficking did not take place in some developing country far away from our cosy lives. It happened in Ireland in 2021. And it’s a story that Ann Mara recounts to EVOKE as she explains why she changed her career path six years ago.

Ann Mara

As a mother of two herself, stories of child trafficking made her sick to her stomach, Sam’s story isn’t even the worst one she can recall that happened in the past few months.

Sam is simply one of the millions of children who are trafficked in Ireland and around the globe every single day. It is believed that there are 40 million victims of human tracking globally today, with 25 per cent of them made up of children.

This means that 10 million children are trafficked around the world, making the figure almost double the population of our country. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Project shows that the number of adults and children trafficked onto the island of Ireland was 800 between 2014 and 2019.

Of these, 89 minors were officially recorded and a further 12 were found who had not be recorded.

Even more heartbreakingly, due to the nature of trafficking an exact figure on how many people are being brought in and out of Ireland can never be nailed down.

After travelling the world, spending time in America, Kenya and South Africa, Irish woman Ann Mara returned to Ireland in 2016, where she began to work with MECPATHS (Mercy Efforts for Child Protection Against Trafficking with the Hospitality and Services Sector). This organisation is the only non-profit in the Republic of Ireland that raises awareness of the presence of human trafficking activity in the country which is more prolific than many people know.

It works specifically in the area of trafficking of children for exploitation, teaching people how to identify and report it. During her time with the organisation, Ann has seen some harrowing cases, from physical abuse to forced labour and sexual abuse of young children.

Ann tells EVOKE human trafficking has been a growing issue on our shores. ‘Human trafficking, which includes child trafficking, is a human rights issue that is growing in prevalence across the globe, and Ireland is not immune to this crime,’ she explains.

‘Most people we speak to are shocked at the extent to which human trafficking is happening in this country. Many don’t believe it happens here at all and think it is confined to poorer, far-away countries,’ says Ann.

‘The reality is that victims of trafficking are “hidden in plain sight”, and are currently living in our communities, towns, and cities. MECPATHS raises awareness around this issue and advocates for increased child protection.’

Shockingly, in 2021 Ireland was ranked the worst in western Europe for tackling human trafficking. The Trafficking in Persons Report in 2020 reduced Ireland’s ranking from tier two to a tier two watchlist, meaning the country has not increased its efforts to eliminate trafficking since 2019.

The 2021 report sees Ireland remain on the watchlist, alongside countries like Armenia, Chad, Hong Kong and Romania. The Human Rights and Equality Commission admitted that Ireland continues to fall below minimum standards compared to other developed nations.

Ann assures us that human trafficking is on our doorstep, and recalls some devastating cases she has dealt with. In the last few months alone she has seen children being forced to work for criminal gangs and one child who was covered in chemical burns.

‘Recently, we came across a social work practitioner who was working with a boy in the west of Ireland. He had been found working alone at a car wash, with chemical burns on his hands, and had been subjected to labour exploitation,’ Ann remembers.

‘Another social worker working in the west of Dublin spoke of her work with two teenage boys who were groomed for criminal exploitation from the age of 12 and are currently caught in debt bondage.’

‘A hotel manager in Munster shared with us the story of how a child who had checked in with an older man earlier in the day, appeared naked in the bar later that evening asking for help. We all need to open our eyes to Human Trafficking.’

Ann explained that raising awareness about trafficking is so important because ‘if people don’t realise that a problem exists, they are not going to see it, and victims will go unidentified and will continue to be exploited.’

As part of her job she travels the country to educate ‘frontline professionals’ on how to spot a victim of trafficking, from hotels to shops, the mother of two feels like there is nothing more important than raising awareness on the issue.

‘There is nothing quite like standing in front of a group of people and equipping them with the knowledge that could potentially save a child’s life from exploitation,’ she told us.

‘Having worked for almost two decades in education and training, I have seen firsthand how it can liberate, transform, and equip individuals and communities,’ Ann went on to say.

‘I wish people realised just how intrinsically linked we all are to human trafficking. Which one of us, when we buy a bag of coffee beans, a chocolate bar, a new smartphone or get our car valeted for a “bargain”, stops to think about whether someone was exploited in the production of that product or service we are purchasing?’ she stated in one of the more harrowing moments of our chat.

‘Human trafficking is closer than you think. Victims are living within our own communities here in Ireland.’

To learn more about Child Trafficking and the work that MECPATHS is doing to raise awareness of the presence of human trafficking activity in Ireland; and how to identify and report it, visit MECPATHS here.

*names have been changed

 

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