Magdalene Laundries loom large in the history of Irish sex work policy, especially so in the Republic where the last such slave labour institution, the High Park laundry in Dublin, only closed in 1996. Given the same religious orders that ran these laundries continue to dominate over sex work policy in the Republic today, it barely seems appropriate to talk of this as ‘history’ at all. But, moving away from the Republic, has the moral panic over ‘Modern Day Slavery’ in North now created a situation where Magdalene Laundry type institutions could re-emerge in the North?
In 2012 a fundraiser appeared for a new ‘safe house’ to be run by Solas Trust, an organisation with a stated mission to provide residential care, refuge, restoration and rehabilitation for women and young girls who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and/or prostitution. In a series of slick professional videos the religious couple planning to run the ‘home’ were introduced as Mike and Ros Oman. Mike, who self-styles himself as the ‘father of the fatherless’, talked about wanting to be a father to abused women and girls and help them discover God and experience restoration in Christ. Ros said women would stay in the ‘home’ for 45 days to 2 years.
Soon after this the front page of the Freedom Project Ireland (now renamed Invisible Traffick) said “As more victims are rescued, FPI intends to develop an intensive rehabilitation service to assist victims as they heal.” More recently anti-trafficking charity, Flourish NI, which was launched in 2014, stated it also has an interest in developing exit services for sex workers. A great number of anti-trafficking organisations have sprung up all over Northern Ireland in recent years, and many of these could potentially want to get involved in running exiting services for sex workers.
The DUP has been busy planning a future for sex workers in Northern Ireland for a while now. On 20th March 2014, at a Justice Committee evidence session on their Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, Lord Morrow and his ‘Advisor’ Dr Dan Boucher of fundamentalist Christian lobby group CARE added a new clause to the Bill to require that support is provided for those who wish to exit sex work. As if yet to grasp how ineffective passing a law against the purchase of sex work will be in terms of actually stopping sex work, Lord Morrow talked of sex workers being left “bewildered”, “like orphans” and “alone to fend for themselves in a big world that they have very little experience of”. His DUP colleague Jim Wells noted that once “their trade dries up” sex workers might “turn to something equally sinister such as drug trafficking” if not provided with “care, settlement, training and sheltered housing.”
Women’s Aid, who have stated they view all sex work as rape and slavery and have supported the DUP Bill to criminalise the purchase of sex, met with Lord Morrow and proposed they are funded an extra £200,000 per annum to provide sheltered accommodation for women exiting sex work. The Justice Committee’s report on the Bill contains a letter from Women’s Aid to Lord Morrow outlining their plans here, and that they envisage women would stay in their ‘care’ for a period of 6 to 12 months after exiting sex work.
The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill was passed by the NI Assembly on 21st October 2014 including a requirement that the Department of Health provides ‘assistance and support for exiting prostitution’.
Noting that it is the Department of Health, now headed up by the DUP’s Jim Wells, which will be in charge of providing the exit support and assistance services for sex workers, or selecting another organisation to do so, I’d argue that things are looking pretty grim and it is not likely that many sex workers are going to want to volunteer themselves for entry to these new exit services for sex workers that are to be established.
The Bill does specify that support and assistance for exiting sex work “shall be provided with the agreement of the person”, which on the face of it means sex workers will not be forced into exit services, which is of course good.
However, as I highlighted in an earlier post today, the decriminalisation sex workers were promised as part of this Bill remains suspiciously missing from the Bill still. This I think gives rise to a concern that sex workers in Northern Ireland could potentially be forced into exit services in the future by so called ‘diversion schemes’ which would offer them a choice between prosecution or engagement with an exit service.
Could this happen though, would the police arrest sex workers and then divert them into empty exit support and assistance services in order to fill these empty services? I think unfortunately we do need to be concerned about this possibility.