#traffikfreetravel: NI as a Port Town

NMT TFT Blog-13

NI as a Port Town

Northern Ireland is in a unique position between both the UK and the EU. Here, Carys takes a look at the implications for human trafficking.

Northern Ireland is unique in its relationship with two differing states: the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Both of these have different geographical and political positions and yet both have a special relationship with Northern Ireland that means that the borders are “soft borders”. This means that crossing the border is more similar to crossing the border of a constituency than crossing the border of countries that have “hard borders”. The unique nature of Northern Ireland’s borders has been utilised by traffickers for the purpose of exploitation.

Due to our geopolitical position, Northern Ireland has become a transit route between the UK, that often has strict border regulations, and the Republic of Ireland, that is within the European Union and thus makes the border to other EU countries soften. Moreover traffickers can utilise the good relations between Ireland and the USA having entered the Republic. This transit route means that Northern Ireland acts as a Port Town to victims of trafficking who may only be in the area for a minimal time, maybe even a couple of days, before they are transported to their permanent destination. This unique situation means that authorities may only have a limited window to recover potential victims. Therefore it is possible that, more than other non-transit countries, we have a duty, a responsibility, to be aware of the signs of trafficking and to report any suspicious activity immediately.  

Ireland and Northern Ireland as a single island

Despite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland being separate in terms of political jurisdiction, they remain connected by an attitude of sibling-like relations in both the North and South. To some there remains the opinion that they are in fact still one country. Due to this relationship and the fact that geographically they cohabit a single island, the borders between the two are decidedly “soft”, almost as soft as the borders between Scotland, Wales and England who share not only an island but also a geopolitical jurisdiction.  

Juliet Singer, Chief Executive Officer of anti-trafficking NGO STOP UK points out: “The border problems mirror Europe: lack of security at crossing points, apathy, lack of awareness”, and even further than this it is softer because of the blurred relationship between North and South. The border is such that “the border is used commonly every day for all sorts of activities from work to going to the dentist, so it is very, very easy to cross”. (Evidence submitted by Dudley, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2006, p.1) This “soft border” is further enhanced by a political alliance that exists between the two countries where there are cross border alliances on some political issues, such as social care. 

There are a lot of positives of having this “soft border” between the two countries, that negate any suggestion of trying to enforce a “hard border”. However, there is a complicated side to the ease of transport between the countries and that is the ease of trafficking victims. This results in Northern Ireland being a transit country due to the ease of access Northern Ireland has to and from mainland Europe through ROI. The nature of the island means that victims are often subject to exploitation in both jurisdictions. For example, individuals forced into labour doing Chinese medicine while being underpaid or forced to work without holiday, are forced  by removing all chance of recovery. Thus, as soon as workers begin to make ties they are moved around the North and South, so that they cannot get help. 

This demonstrates the benefit to traffickers of interchanging victims between the North and South: it deepens the psychological control the trafficker has over the victim. As well as the lack of ties it also increases the vulnerability of the victim due to them not having a work permit for the other country. This heightens the traffickers ability to exploit their employee when they feel trapped. This is not limited to one sector and many other victims are trapped using the same control technique. For example, sex work (an industry which does have links to human trafficking) tends to be a cross border operation. ACC Drew Harris has said “Prostitution does not respect our border. It surges backwards and forwards, depending on the need and demand for the services of prostitutes”. An example of this was in April 2012 when 2 Hungarian women were first flown to Dublin airport and subsequently driven up to Belfast as their trafficking destination. This border makes this aspect of transit unique in the UK to Northern Ireland. 

An easy link between the Republic of Ireland and the UK

The multiple borders of Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s personal relationship with those countries we border with makes moving across borders from Northern Ireland a lot easier than the borders between almost any other country. The police noted the “increased use of Northern Ireland both as a route through the UK from the Republic and going in the other direction.” (Evidence submitted by Dudley, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2006, p.1) Policing is therefore difficult between the borders without making them into “hard borders” which would consequently make the country a lot less accessible and life a lot harder for those who live here. Furthermore it would restrict Northern Ireland’s interaction with the rest of the world and our participation in the global economy. 

It is logical for those traffickers who wish to move their victims from Dublin to London, or vice versa, to use the softer border of NI rather than the hard border of a direct route across the water. Therefore, the ease of the “soft border “ is often preferred to the “hard border” of a direct route  between ROI and the UK. NI is used as a “back door” for those wishing to enter Great Britain and ROI In this way NI is utilised as an easy way of trafficking people, according to the HR commission.  

Traffickers use NI in relation to the UK and the Republic in a unique way. It has become a quick stop off for many forms of human trafficking where people are exploited and then quickly moved to their destination. For example, with sex trafficking, victims are brought from GB and ROI for short term stay in Belfast and later transported to other locations, moving brothels around and exerting control over the women working by preventing  them from making contacts and networking with the outside world.

Human traffickers stopping off in Belfast may be the only time they are vulnerable to being exposed. In this way the UK and ROI, through the “back door” of Northern Ireland, operates like a single country with a large amount of trafficking movement and exchange of victims. Although increasing the number of victims going through Northern Ireland is a negative, it is also an opportunity to catch traffickers when they are most vulnerable. When travelling, the psychological control over the victim weakens. Furthermore the traffickers do not have the protection they receive in the destination and most importantly they are visible and must interact with the border authority. It is therefore essential  that we utilise this unique situation to trace human traffickers and recover victims.

Within NI

When discussing transport in regards to trafficking it is easy to think of travelling large distances thus  forgetting that trafficking can occur within a country. 

We know that victims are brought to Northern Ireland and trafficked for labour or sexual exploitation; and we also know that Northern Irish people are trafficked internally in these forms as well.

With regards to sex trafficking, it can be a mobile business in Northern Ireland. This is unlike forced labour or domestic servitude, which tend to require a base. It is also in contrast to other places in Europe where sex trafficking operates on the streets as well as in brothels. In Northern Ireland, sex trafficking tends to operate in brothels: the UK Human Trafficking Centre have identified a “chicken run” system. They move around Northern Ireland by car and train getting short, cheap leases, making them less likely to be caught as the authorities intelligence is often expired by the time they investigate as the brothel has moved.  This system is also in place so that traffickers can operate further psychological control over the victim. By moving the victims they cannot make contacts to seek help. They are disorientated, isolated and alone. Sometimes the brothel remains but the victims are exchanged to give customers more choice.

Link to Europe

The geopolitical position of Northern Ireland makes it the perfect entrance point to both the UK and the EU. Once entered they can move freely around the UK and the EU with relative ease. “The movement of people between jurisdictions for the purpose of work is particularly common in agriculture and includes workers from countries that have recently joined the European Union.”

Mr Humphrey : “The difficulty in Northern Ireland is that it is an advantage to those who are involved in that sort of illicit behaviour that we have a land border with another European state.”

Outside of Europe

Due to the “soft border” between the Republic and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland is often targeted as an access point to the whole of the UK. There are victims who come from Asia, Afria and all other parts of the globe. 

Dr Obobath sees the “restrictive immigration policy” in NI and the UK as a contributing factor to the rise in trafficking. Due to the fact that people cannot enter legally they are reliant on traffickers who in turn trap them into working for them. These immigrants are in a very vulnerable position as they are in the country illegally and the traffickers are in a position of power. This makes psychological control and exploitation easy for the traffickers. According to government research 29% of potential victims flown into Northern Ireland are done so illegally. 

According to government research on flights and trafficking, of the potential victims off trafficking “very few potential victims enter NI directly from outside the UK and Ireland. This makes the soft borders of the UK and Ireland even more essential to protect since 15% of potential victims entered NI via Great Britain and 12% via Ireland.”


The geopolitical position of Northern Ireland creates a unique situation of not one but two “soft borders”. This creates an ease of travel between the nations that is not recreated in many other places globally. This mobility is utilised by traffickers as a transit route both from the Republic to the UK and vice versa and as an easy access point to mainland Europe. This makes Northern Ireland a Port Town to traffickers. Due to the uniqueness of Northern Ireland’s role within Europe and the UK, our response to trafficking should also be unique. We may be at a disadvantage due to the number of potential victims in transit through NI, and the short window there is for them to be recovered. On the other hand, traffickers who are not staying in NI but are using it as a Port Town are in a unique position of vulnerability when in Northern Ireland as they are particularly exposed when travelling. This may be the only time that victims are able to interact with the general public even if it is only when walking from the house to the car. 

Therefore, our response to trafficking should be proportional to the unique situation. An obvious solution may be to tighten out border and create “hard border”. However, this resolution would hinder our economy, cutting us off from other jurisdictions and cultures and immobilise our country. Instead, we could treat the UK and ROI as one unit and respond with the same response that we would if there was no border. 

To this end, Northern Ireland cooperating with both ROI and the UK is already part of our approach. We should also utilise the opportunity we have that we would not have if we were one country: the required interaction with authorities at the border. This can be used to share best practice in terms of training and awareness raising, and importantly ensuring that the public is aware of the signs to report them. Therefore, we have a duty to be aware of the signs of trafficking and report it whenever we see suspicious activity. 

The less acceptable we make it for human traffickers to operate in NI, the more we will deter the use of the country as a Port Town. It will often come down to the person sitting next to the victim to notice that something is not right. Therefore, when travelling: keep your eyes open. 



Conflict Research Report on Extent of HT in NI

DOJ Research on Women in NI Involved in Sex Work 

Human Trafficking in Scotland 

Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill Evidence Minutes

Northern Ireland as a Trafficking Route

The Protection Project

BBC News

OCTF Report