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Monday 20 November 2017

'Tina' wanted to come to Ireland - but she was beaten and abused

Nusha Yonkova from the Immigrant Council of Ireland Photo: Caroline Quinn
Nusha Yonkova from the Immigrant Council of Ireland Photo: Caroline Quinn
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'Don't call me auntie. From now on, refer to me as your mother," said *Tina's aunt, handing the 15-year-old girl her passport as they approached the first customs border en route to Ireland.

There were no questions. Nor were there any at Dublin Airport, with officers accepting the pair as mother and daughter on their way to be reunited with the woman's husband, a doctor. They had visas, and officially, everything was above board.

It was not until several years later following profound physical abuse, homelessness and two attempts to take her own life that Tina was told she had been a victim of human trafficking.

That she agreed to come to Ireland was irrelevant. She was a child - and she had been lied to.

The most recent official statistics on human trafficking show that, in 2014, 79 investigations confirmed 46 victims. These are the tip of the iceberg because the real victims are so hard to identify, Nusha Yonkova, anti-trafficking manager with the Immigrant Council of Ireland told the Irish Independent.

She warned that the distinction is not always clear-cut between trafficking and the smuggling of people done with their consent and usually at great expense.

"If someone is paying a vast amount of money to be smuggled into a country, they are either wealthy or indebted," Nusha pointed out.

"If they are wealthy, they will buy a visa. If they are indebted, they become vulnerable to those smugglers and can easily become caught up in something."

In 'straightforward' cases of human trafficking, an estimated 69-79pc of victims - generally young, frightened women from Eastern Europe and West Africa - are brought for exploitation in the sex trade.

"Every year we work with around 300 women - at least a third of whom have been trafficked," said Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, the agency working to help women in prostitution.

"These victims are not in locked rooms - you pass them on the street," she said. "There are other ways to keep people from leaving - like threats, either to them or to their families."

Other women, young and extremely impoverished and generally from Eastern Europe, are lured here by criminal networks, to take part in sham marriages to secure an EU visa for a man from a third-party country.

Around one in five of those trafficked are exploited to fuel enterprises as diverse as begging and pickpocketing to working in the fishing industry, harvesting crops or even working in a circus.

On arrival in 2005, Tina became a virtual slave in her aunt's household, forced to rise at 4am to clean the floors, grind corn for the family's meals and get her young cousins ready for school. Under the pressure of Irish friends, her aunt reluctantly agreed to let her attend school but when she arrived home excited after the first day, her aunt slapped her hard, saying: "You think you're so cool now."

"That really upset me. I didn't do anything wrong," said Tina.

Her aunt became increasingly physically violent towards her.

"One of the days she hit me so hard I fell down and I was in a lot of pain.

"I was crying at break time and a teacher was passing and noticed. I told her what was happening," she said.

"The head teacher called the social worker - they told me I had to make an official statement but I didn't want to get my parents in trouble."

The beatings continued.

"She would throw food in my face and push me down the stairs. I broke my ribs so many times," said Tina.

One day, she hurled her down the stairs after Tina failed to wake early enough to switch on the immersion for hot showers.

She later collapsed at school and when brought to hospital, medics saw her bruised body and she was taken into care.

Housed in an emergency hostel for young people, she had to spent over six hours at a garda station waiting to see the social worker on call.

One of her school teachers finally agreed to foster her - but Tina was forced out on the last day of her Leaving Cert exams as the foster care payments dried up once she turned 18 that January.

She spent a year on the streets since no homeless shelter would take her in.

"They told me I'd lied to come into this country. I explained but they said I didn't meet the criteria," she said.

The Immigrant Council helped her find accommodation and to get her life back on track. She is now looking for a job, having graduated from college and is hopeful for the future.

*Tina's name has been changed

Irish Independent

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