636. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Justice the progress on the reforms to the national referral mechanism for suspected victims of human trafficking (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25702/21]


Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy Hildegarde Naughton): On 11 May, the Government approved plans for a revised National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to make it easier for victims of human trafficking to come forward and be supported. I also received approval on that date to draft a general scheme of a Bill to put the new NRM on a statutory footing.
Human trafficking is a particularly cruel crime, based on deception and exploitation of vulnerable people, and it is hidden. Due to its hidden nature, it is very difficult to detect and investigate. This reform should make it easier to reach and protect victims. 
The NRM provides a way for all agencies, both State and civil society, to cooperate, share information about potential victims, identify those victims and facilitate their access to advice, accommodation and support. It is the framework through which States fulfil obligations to protect and promote the human rights of trafficking victims. The proposals I have brought to Government will make it easier for victims to come forward and be officially recognised as victims of human trafficking in order to receive appropriate supports.
It will also make it easier for the State to provide that support and protection in a collaborative way across the range of departments and agencies, and working with key NGOs. I want to stress how important this proposal is, not only in terms of Ireland’s substantive response on how we reach and protect victims of this heinous crime – which is the most important thing – but also on our international reputation.
Currently, when suspected victims of human trafficking are encountered by, or referred to, An Garda Síochána, they are provided with a wide range of services by both the Government and NGOs through the NRM. It is widely accepted that having the Gardaí as the sole competent authority for the formal recognition of people as victims of human trafficking is not an adequate response. Many victims will not approach the police due to a mistrust of police, but may be more comfortable approaching a different state body, or an NGO.
This new approach acknowledges that, in addition to An Garda Síochána, other state bodies and NGOs have a role in identifying victims of human trafficking and referring them to the National Referral Mechanism. An Garda Síochána are excellent in their role as our competent authority but we know some victims, because of interactions they may have had with law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions, have a perception that police can not be trusted.
We want to be sure that every victim of trafficking is identified and helped so that we can support them. Doing this will also help us gather more information and evidence in order to bring to justice the traffickers who prey on vulnerable people with no regard for the lives and safety of their victims. The new NRM we are proposing to introduce will provide a variety of avenues for victims of trafficking to be identified and find a route to the services we have available.
In addition to An Garda Síochána, it is being proposed that the following agencies will become competent authorities for the identification of victims of human trafficking:
- Department of Justice Immigration Services
- Department of Social Protection
- The HSE
- Tusla
- Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth
- International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS)
These agencies each already have interaction with potential victims of human trafficking. The agencies will together form a National Referral Mechanism Operational Committee, which will make decisions on entry of victims into the NRM. In addition, some NGOs will be designated as ‘trusted partners’ and will also be able to refer victims to the NRM, which creates an alternative and trusted pathway to enter the NRM, aside from through interaction with State agencies.
There is considerable detailed work to be done yet to get the revised NRM up-and-running and the Department of Justice is committed to working through all the detail in a collaborative spirit with Departments, agencies and with the key NGO partners.   
These proposals follow the recent announcement by Minister McEntee of an initiative to expunge previous convictions for ‘sale of sex’, or prostitution offences, and are a significant step in recognising and responding to the needs of victims of sex trafficking, and those forced to provide sexual services.
The Department is also working with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Ireland on a Cultural Mediation project.  The project will build the capacity of State professionals who work with/for migrants, to identify and address the needs of (potential) victims of gender based violence and trafficking more effectively and to provide culturally sensitive support to them. It will also allow victims of gender based violence and trafficking better access to information and effectively engage with support and referral services and will promote a culturally sensitive approach to victims, through the use of cultural mediators.