Ukrainian refugees coming to Ireland are being targeted by organised crime gangs exploiting the Border to smuggle people within the island for the sex trade, a senior Northern Ireland police officer has warned.
PSNI assistant chief constable Mark McEwan said there has been increased exploitation of the Common Travel Area (CTA) - a deal dating to the 1920s securing freedom to travel between Britain and Ireland - since Brexit.
Organised gangs are using the CTA “in terms of people and drugs being moved between Dublin and Belfast,” he told the Westminster Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
“We have seen, particularly in people smuggling, human trafficking and exploitation for sexual gain, a number of organised crime gangs both moving people into Northern Ireland and between Ireland and the North in that respect, in terms for exploiting people who are already here - recent examples sadly from the Ukrainian refugees,” he said.
Mr McEwan said 15 of Northern Ireland’s 68 organised crime gangs have a “cross-border footprint” in the Republic, while around 22 have a “direct link” to paramilitary groups. He said the gangs are involved in “mainly drug importation” but also people trafficking.
He said paramilitary groups are “not as successful” as other organised criminals but are “becoming more ambitious” in “buying into the business model of organised crime groups”.
He said many gangs were not making enough money from their criminality to reach the threshold for unexplained wealth orders - the North’s equivalent of Criminal Asset Bureau seizures. Mr McEwan said he would like to see the possibility of tweaking those thresholds to match the scale of their reach in the region.
Paramilitaries involved in criminality operate at “lower levels” and are motivated not just by money but also “power and local control” and they “tend to have political motivation,” he told the committee. They also “use that as a veneer of legitimacy reaching back to the past”, presenting themselves as “protectors” of local communities when carrying out money laundering and extortion based crimes.
During the pandemic lockdowns, loyalist paramilitary criminals in particular “called in debts” in their communities “because everyone’s finances were becoming straitened” causing “further problems in those communities,” he added.
Since September 2017, the North’s Paramilitary Crime Task Force - involving the PSNI, the UK’s National Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs - have carried out 842 searches, 323 arrests or reports and more than 200 weapons or ammunition seizures.
The “tempo was high” over the last year in particular, with 391 searches, 220 arrests and 178 charges or reports against organised crime groups, Mr McEwan said. Since April this year, there have been 268 searches, 118 arrests and 111 people charged or reported.
On republican paramilitaries, mainly the so-called New IRA and Continuity IRA, there have been 156 searches, 111 arrests, 22 charges and 41 reports. There has also been eight arrests and charges in connection with the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry.
However this year also marked the lowest number of shootings and bombings - including lower level pipe bomb attacks - over the past decade, the senior police officer said.
Street protests against the Northern Ireland Protocol in April this year involved figures linked to paramilitaries, Mr McEwan also told the committee.
“They were generally organised by or formed as coalitions,” he said. “There may be members of those coalitions that have links to paramilitary groups, absolutely, but that is not to say the coalitions themselves are controlled by paramilitary groups or otherwise.”
On the absence of a functioning Stormont Executive because of the DUP boycott, Mr McEwan said its biggest impact was a £90 million hole in funding for the PSNI, forcing it to make “really tough decisions” in terms of resources to police “organised criminality, paramilitary groups, violent extremism and public protection.”