Santa Marta Leadership Summit in Cork, Ireland: Garda Commissioner Drew Harris Keynote Speech

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Cardinal Nichols, Minister for Justice, Chief Constable Boutcher, Director Harris, Colleagues, Good Morning.

You are all very welcome to the Banking Hall here in the University College Cork Centre for Executive Education, for this the 2024 Senior Leadership Summit on Collectively Combating Human Trafficking.

An Garda Síochána is delighted to host this conference in conjunction with the Santa Marta Group. It follows a successful conference hosted by Police Scotland last year, and this week’s event aims to build on our collaboration and partnership going forward.

I’d like to begin by firstly acknowledging the great number of police services represented here today, together with representatives from across the Catholic Church.

I want to welcome our Justice and charitable partners, both here in Ireland and internationally - all of whom, are working to prevent human trafficking and provide tailored support to victims of this egregious crime.

I’d like to thank the Santa Marta Group for their support and collaboration on this initiative. This conference provides a valuable opportunity for those of us with senior leadership roles in this area to discuss key issues and learnings that we have encountered in our respective fields.

Over the course of the next two days our aim in hosting this event is to provide the time and space for all our delegates to meet with one another and share our varied experiences.

By imparting this knowledge and insight we can all gain a better understanding of how this heinous crime takes place; how to better identify victims and potential targets; and ultimately this will enable us to bring perpetrators of human trafficking to justice.

In order to do this effectively we must acknowledge the presence and prevalence of human trafficking locally and internationally.

We must acknowledge that the victims are without a voice. Marginalised by the crime committed against them they are unseen and unheard. By gathering under the auspices of Santa Marta we seek to give them a voice, we seek to bring them into the light.

Human trafficking is here. It is in Ireland, and Irish people can be targeted.

This despicable crime involves the use of deception, threats or physical force to move a victim from one place to another in order to exploit them. Or in the case of a child - the act of transporting a child into exploitative conditions.

What sets it apart from immigration-related offences such as people smuggling is the element of exploitation.

This can include Sexual Exploitation - the prostitution of the victim or the production of pornography which depicts the victim; Labour Exploitation - forcing the victim to perform manual labour or carry out domestic services with no rights and little to no remuneration; Forced Criminality - such as grow houses or the sale of illegal drugs; and Forced begging- which sees the creation of begging rings, daily quotas, victims intentionally disfigured.

Other forms of exploitation also include Organ removal –performed without the free, informed and specific consent of the donor.

Human trafficking by its nature, is a crime that is Hidden in Plain Sight, and to identify victims, and crucially those perpetrators exploiting them, we must look to what is being done and how it is being done.

Human trafficking is unfortunately seen as a business by the criminals that carry it out. Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) and criminals use it as a means to make money.

OCGs combine illicit practices with strong, often legitimate business and technical skills. This results in highly profitable, low risk businesses that are resilient to law enforcement actions. They can be easy to set up, relocate, and difficult for law enforcement to prosecute.

This crime is often based on family and ethnic ties, particularly in the area of sexual exploitation, and victims are most often re-victimised for various other exploitative ventures. As the business grows for the OCG they expand the scope of their activities internationally and ultimately work to finance criminality.

The victims of human trafficking span all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds and demographics. Those most at risk include: those who are vulnerable; emotionally isolated from family and friends; runaway and homeless youths; victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war or conflict; as well as victims of economic deprivation or social discrimination.

We know that social media acts as a key tool for traffickers in identifying potential victims, and is used through the use of fake accounts to befriend and groom targets and gain their trust.

Significant effort goes into this practice and a trafficker will study what a potential victim posts on social media. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for individuals to identify a sinister approach in this setting.

For many victims the simple offer of a better life is enough to give rise to engagement with these predators, enabling them to groom them and enlist them in their enterprises.

When children are exploited, they enter this world through means of domestic abuse and neglect; harmful traditions such as early or forced marriage; are sold by families in deprivation; or enlisted for domestic servitude.

Later today you will hear from a victim of sexual exploitation, who will speak with a representative of Ruhmama and discuss her experience. I want to especially acknowledge her bravery and thank her for sharing her harrowing experience, which furthers our knowledge at how to protect and support victims of human trafficking.

We will also hear from PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Gail McCormick who will deliver a panel discussion on sexual exploitation.

Tomorrow we will turn the focus to Labour Exploitation and forced criminality with further panel discussions.

The Irish Experience

For An Garda Síochána here in Ireland our experience is that we are a destination country – not a source country – in respect of human trafficking.

We have found that all detections here have stemmed from foreign nationals exploiting those from their own country in Ireland. That is not to say that Irish people cannot be victims. This is a crime that uses people as commodities and as such anyone can be a victim.

In Ireland it is a crime we take very seriously. In 2015 The Garda National Protective Services Bureau (GNPSB) was established and our Human Trafficking Investigation & Co-ordination Unit (HTICU) operates within the bureau. This is a specialist unit dedicated to investigating allegations and supporting victims of human trafficking.

The unit provides advice, support and operational assistance to human trafficking investigations nationwide. This unit is responsible for proactively pursuing a strategy that targets Organised Crime Groups (OCG’s) engaged in human trafficking.

Furthermore, our Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit (OPIU) investigate and co-ordinate cases relating specifically to the Sexual Exploitation of Trafficked Victims. This unit also works to identify escorts under 18 years old; and victims of coercive control.

Of course these activities often cross borders, and involve an international element and so the units work to liaise with our European and International Law Enforcement Agencies to progress investigations.

In 2023 there were 53 individuals identified as victims of human trafficking in Ireland. This represents an increase of 26% on the previous year. Of those 71% were women.

The dominant means of exploitation of those victims in Ireland was for sexual exploitation with 28 or 67% involved in this forced activity; a further 8 or 19% were exploited for labour; and the remaining 14% were involved in forced criminality.

While this is a notable increase on those victims identified in 2022, the increase can be attributed to a combination of factors, including an increase in reporting; our actions to create awareness of the potential for vulnerable individuals – including migrants – to be trafficked; and also the increased exploitation of people by the criminal fraternity.


In Ireland to date, we have had one successful prosecution for human trafficking. In 2021, two women were convicted for the sexual exploitation of four female victims. Both women initially received custodial sentences of five to five and a half years. However, these sentences were appealed by the Director of Public Prosecutions on the grounds of leniency. Last year, both women had their sentences increased on appeal to seven and a half years.

Furthermore, we have two additional human trafficking cases before the courts in respect of separate incidents of labour exploitation.

As the Minister for Justice has already referenced, legislation is currently making its way through the Oireachtas [The Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2023].

This will provide for a new National Referral Mechanism (NRM) framework for the identification of victims of human trafficking.

This National Referral Mechanism will provide a more streamlined response, and will provide for the identification of victims who have been hidden in plain sight and ensure they are provided with the support they need.

For us, in An Garda Síochána, this piece of legislation will significantly benefit victims by providing better access to supports and routes to report this crime.

Before I conclude,

It is important to say that this work cannot be done in a vacuum. human trafficking permeates through various strands of criminal activity; it is transnational and as outlined is hidden in plain sight.

That is why events like this are essential. It affords us the opportunity to connect, to identify common trends, and new pathways traffickers are utilising to prey on the vulnerable.

As I mentioned earlier, to traffickers and organised crime groups, this is a business venture. A lucrative one.

And like any business, it is a co-ordinated enterprise. It has key leadership figures. It has branches and subsidiaries that educate one another on means and opportunities. These networks operate cohesively together across various parts of the world like many other businesses.

But unlike any legitimate business, this is a business that causes untold misery, immense hardship, and takes people’s liberty from them.

To combat this awful enterprise, we too must organise and collaborate.

We must strengthen our bonds.

We must learn from our experiences and learn from each other

We must do this because it takes a network to defeat a network.

I am a strong believer in working together to defeat those who choose to flout and evade the law by using borders to their advantage.

In raising awareness, sharing our knowledge and experience as we are doing here this week, I know we can deliver results.

To conclude,

This conference would not have come about if it weren’t for our partners The Santa Marta Group. And I want to take this opportunity to thank them for their contribution and support in organising this week’s event.

I have no doubt that throughout today and tomorrow we will all gain better insight into human trafficking; establish connections; and get to explore innovative ways of bringing those involved in this crime to justice.

Thank you and I look forward to meeting with you all throughout the conference.