Santa Marta Leadership Summit in Cork, Ireland: Irish Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD Keynote Speech

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Good morning.

You are all very welcome to this conference and, indeed, to this wonderful building which dates back to the 1840s.

I’m told it was built as a penny bank to help encourage people to start saving for the first time - an excellent idea for society as a whole, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And hopefully we can share some equally good suggestions over the coming days.

I’m honoured to help open this Santa Marta conference on human trafficking, and my thanks to colleagues in the Garda National Protective Services Bureau including Detective Chief Supt Colm Noonan for organising.

There are simply too many distinguished guests and leading experts to name individually.

But a warm welcome in particular to Chief Constable Jon Boutcher of the PSNI, Director James C Harris of Homeland Security, and all those representing police services from other jurisdictions.

And also to Cardinal Nichols and all associated with the Santa Marta Group, including Iain Livingstone and Kevin Hyland.

I think the seriousness of these crimes and the determination to combat them is reflected in the calibre of attendees.

And combatting human trafficking is something we take extremely seriously in Ireland.

As I understand it, this conference follows on from a successful conference in Glasgow 12 months ago where it was agreed that a further event would be beneficial and our own Commissioner, Drew Harris, proposed Ireland as host.

I’m glad he did, and you are all very welcome. I’m sure we can achieve a lot and learn a lot from each other.


Human trafficking is an exploitative and particularly heinous crime that preys on some of the most vulnerable.

It is committed with no regard for life, dignity or for the most basic of human rights.

As a crime that violates these rights, it has no place in a modern and civilised society.

And yet we know vulnerable people are trafficked into Ireland for exploitation reasons, including sexual exploitation, forced labour and forced criminality.

Late last year I launched a study (SERP, Pathways to Exit) on exiting prostitution and, among the women quoted in the study who had been trafficked, one said simply:

“It was as if I had lost hope in myself. I had lost confidence.

“You don’t see yourself as amounting to anything. You see yourself as wasted.”

These are real people. These are real lives. This is really part of our society.

And so I’m heartened to see a focus on victims at this event, and that we will get to hear the lived experience of some. You are most welcome.

The victims of trafficking must always be to the forefront of our decision making.

We must listen when they speak. And we must advocate for them when they cannot.

Of course, this is often not easy.

Nor, given the nature of trafficking, is it always easy to identify those who need our help.

The prevention, detection and prosecution of this crime is something our Government takes very seriously.

It sits alongside our priority right now to improve how we identify and support victims.


I know one of the reasons you are in Ireland is to examine our responses to this issue, and there are two areas in particular I would like to highlight.

Making it easier for victims of trafficking to be identified is one very practical and victim-centred example of how we are giving effect to our commitment to ensure that all victims can access the supports and services they need.

This will be done through a new National Referral Mechanism (NRM) - which is the framework for identifying victims and linking them in with supports and services.

This new referral mechanism provides for various ways for victims to come forward, including trusted NGO partners.

Currently, An Garda Síochána – our police service - is the sole competent authority for the formal recognition of people as victims of human trafficking.

This is not an adequate response.

Some victims of trafficking, because of interactions they may have had with law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions, may have a perception that police cannot be trusted.

Our new model acknowledges that other State bodies and NGOs have an important role in identifying victims of human trafficking and referring them to the NRM.

This provides an alternative and trusted pathway to recognition via civil society organisations which support victims.

The legislation establishing the new NRM is the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking Bill) 2023, and it is due to come before the Seanad – the upper House in our Parliament – today (26 June), and before the Dáil for Report and Final stages next week.

I’m hopeful that this legislation will complete all stages in the Houses before the summer recess, and I can then enact it.

The revised NRM is a cornerstone of the new National Action Plan to prevent and combat human trafficking that I published last November, which is the second initiative I wanted to outline.

This is Ireland’s third National Human Trafficking Action Plan and it builds on the work carried out to date, as well as our increased knowledge, and our increased understanding of the complexities involved.

Again, listening to victims to understand their experience and developing shared understanding and approaches is essential to our objectives.

Everyone in this room recognises that trafficking is a hidden crime.

Combatting it therefore requires an approach based on making a wide range of frontline staff and their managers aware of what to look for and where to refer if they see anything suspicious.

This is a big piece of work, but necessary.

For example, as part of the Action Plan, we’re looking at new and widespread training for all who may come into contact with victims of human trafficking across Departments and State agencies.

This will include our Border Management Unit, as well as health and social care professionals, professionals in contact with children, and working on child-related matters.

The ongoing development of training, through NGOs, targeting front line staff in industries such as hospitality, airline and shipping who may come into contact with trafficked people is a related focus.

Another linked objective is to ensure effective anti-trafficking screening measures are in place at point of entry to the State.

And work to establish dedicated accommodation for victims of trafficking, ensuring that victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are provided with gender-specific accommodation, is progressing well.

We know there is a link between human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and the Plan’s actions include providing exit pathways for women impacted by prostitution who may be vulnerable to trafficking for sexual exploitation.


When it comes to preventing trafficking, collaboration is key. Isn’t that why we are here today?

The European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations are also key partners for us in the multinational human rights framework.

Working on an island with a land border between Europe and the United Kingdom obviously presents its own challenges.

Research carried out at Mary Immaculate College to examine the true scale of human trafficking in Ireland a couple of years back, was part of a wider Santa Marta project.

Data collated for the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Project on the Island of Ireland (HTEPII) shows that the number of human trafficking victims between 2014 and 2019 was some 38pc higher in the State than the official figure for victims who came forward for protection.

This is useful to help us understand the true incidence of human trafficking, and it involved collaboration by two police services and two Justice Departments on the island.

Coincidently, the number of victims officially identified in 2019 was 38. The research therefore suggests that the underlying figure may have been in the region of mid 50s in that year.

In Ireland, like elsewhere, these victims are often ‘hidden in plain sight’.

That is why awareness raising of trafficking is also a key element of our work.

We want Ireland, as a society, to be aware of this reality.

To be alert to the signs of human trafficking.

To recognise it whenever and wherever you come into contact with a victim and to know what to do.

We had huge engagement when we showcased our work on human trafficking at the Ploughing Championship last year.

For those of you who are unaware, the Ploughing Championship is the leading outdoor agricultural trade exhibition in Europe, and a major date on the calendar for rural Ireland.

Along with colleagues in An Garda Síochána, it was fantastic to be able to engage directly with the farming public as agriculture is an area where we know labour exploitation can occur.

I would be interested in hearing what has worked, or not, in other jurisdictions in terms of raising awareness.

We have been encouraged by recent convictions for trafficking here but we are determined to go further.

And I want to acknowledge the work done by our police service’s Human Trafficking Investigation and Co-ordination Unit and its Organised Prostitution Investigation Unit, for the sensitive and humane approach they take with victims of these awful crimes.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced labour or forced criminality are a focus for us, but other areas, such as labour exploitation, are increasingly spoken of in this space.

There is, I think, an important balance to be struck between clearly defining what is and isn’t human trafficking – while at the same time being active in preventing and tackling wider abuses that don’t reach that threshold.

For example, if we expand the definition of human trafficking to include labour exploitation generally, I believe we weaken our focus on the most vulnerable.

However, if our labour inspectorate is successful in enforcing labour law generally – things like pay slips, minimum wage etc - then we shrink the space in which human trafficking can ‘hide’.

Getting that balance right isn’t going to be easy either.

In fact, none of this is.

But we must increase our efforts.

We owe it those who cannot speak for themselves, who cannot fight for themselves.

Thank you.