GARDAI say Irish law in regard to profiting from prostitution cannot control the flagrant advertising of sexual services on the internet, a large portion of which is controlled by a company legally located in Britain.
Gardai and the PSNI are examining information gathered in last week's Operation Quest raids on apartments that were being used mainly by foreign prostitutes. Officers hope to build cases against people whom they believe are involved in earnings from the trade, but say they have little interest in prosecuting the young women involved as prostitution itself is legal in Ireland.
Senior sources said that all the young women who were detained or questioned said they were working in the sex trade here voluntarily. Most are from Eastern Europe, but some are from Africa and the Americas.
The raids were not, sources stressed, a case of rousting prostitutes and their clients for the sake of headlines. Gardai in Dublin, at least, are not intent on charging young women or their clients as happened last December in Limerick when 21 men were arrested and charged with soliciting.
The operation last Wednesday was aimed at building evidence against those involved in profiting from the women working here, they said.
Gardai had previously analysed the main internet prostitution advertising "directory" and consulted lawyers for the State to see if a prosecution could be brought. They estimate that 600 women, men and transsexuals were advertising on the site. With the company quoting ad rates of €250 per month, it is thought to generate around €2.4m in advertising revenue annually from the Republic and Northern Ireland. The company states that it operates in compliance with UK law and pays UK taxes.
Garda sources said that while it might be possible to prosecute a case against the company using extra-jurisdictional criminal law, this would not prevent the operation of the site from moving to another country with no extradition arrangements with Ireland or the EU.
Theoretically, gardai said, it would be easier to prosecute mobile phone companies whose networks are used by the prostitutes. The main website claims that its clients receive 1.9 million calls per month. A researcher for RTE's Prime Time programme on prostitution in February advertised on the website with a mobile phone number and received 500 calls in one week.
Gardai say there is evidence of foreign pimps operating in Ireland but that it is difficult to bring effective prosecutions without the help of young prostitutes -- who would remain highly vulnerable due to the lack of adequate witness protection arrangements here. A number of eastern European pimps were targeted last week, and gardai hope to build cases against at least two operating in Dublin.
The young women who gardai suspect are being forced to pay pimps don't seem to advertise on the main prostitution web directory. They use other small ad sites which are increasingly popular with those involved in the sex trade. Chinese "massage" parlours advertise mainly on these websites.
Gardai disagree with claims by Catholic and feminist groups that there are high levels of human trafficking involved in Ireland's sex trade.
A senior source said that while there had been several prosecutions for "brothel keeping" in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, almost every case concerned young women who were working as prostitutes themselves.
They generally plead guilty and are treated leniently by the courts, where judges generally accept that they are simply working prostitutes rather than operators of brothels.
The three Polish women arrested and brought before the courts in Belfast last week as part of the cross-border operation all pleaded guilty to brothel keeping. The apartment-based operation was described by defence counsel as "unsophisticated", and they had apparently not been trafficked. They received two-month suspended sentences.
Gardai are preparing files on at least three young women outside Dublin. Raids took place recently in Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny. Yet despite more than 200 police being involved in raids on 120 apartments, it is unlikely that any major prosecutions will take place at this juncture, according to garda sources.
The operation in the Republic was directed from Garda Headquarters. Information was gathered by the Crime and Security Department and orders despatched to stations around the country over a month ago to follow up with investigations and the co-ordinated raids in Wednesday's operations. A source at Garda Headquarters said the operation was "pushed" by the PSNI, which has adopted an anti-prostitution stance in recent years.
The raids were criticised by the Sex Workers' Alliance of Ireland (SWAI). The alliance said it "acknowledges the need to investigate trafficking and other forms of exploitation" but is concerned with the indiscriminate nature of the raids. It said: "It appears that there was no attempt to distinguish between voluntary/independent workers and those controlled by others, and that the gardai and PSNI simply raided all known premises".
They warned that this may lead sex workers to take greater risks with their safety to avoid detection -- particularly migrants working here without permission.
"International evidence shows that indiscriminate raids of this sort involve a high cost to sex workers with very little return in terms of either arrests of traffickers or rescues of those genuinely in need," the SWAI said.
It pointed to the results of a survey of similar police operations in England, supposedly targeting sex traffickers, which found that in only 1 per cent of hundreds of raids carried out by the Met and other police forces was any evidence of trafficking or enslavement uncovered.
The SWAI said that, as in Britain, almost all the raids here were on young women who were working "independently" in apartments.
Ruhama, the organisation which aims to disengage women from prostitution, welcomed the operation and said the cross-border effort was a new approach to helping victims of prostitution, who would be treated as witnesses. It reiterated claims that there were 60 victims of trafficking, including six Irish children, reported to gardai last year.
The Immigrant Council of Ireland, which is leading the campaign to have men prosecuted for paying women for sex, also welcomed the raids.