The myth of the so-called “happy hooker” — an Irish Belle de Jour who enjoys her work in the sex trade — was exploded when the criminal empire of Thomas Carroll came crashing down.
Carroll’s victims in Ireland and Britain were all vulnerable, in many cases trafficked from Africa, and some were as young as 15 when they were flown to Ireland under false pretences.
The case shed new light on the twilight world of the Irish sex trade, which is now multi-dimensional.
Now Irish criminal gangs are joined by shadowy gangs from eastern Europe, including Romania, Albania and Russia, and Africa — especially Nigeria. Chinese gangs are also running lucrative massage parlour operations in the same way as brothels.
Carroll, 48, his wife Shamiela Clark, 32, and his daughter Toma Carroll, 26, were sentenced after admitting money laundering. The early admission in the case meant that the full details of the police investigation both here and in the UK were not revealed.
Thomas Carroll and Clark also pleaded guilty to conspiring to control prostitutes, including women who were trafficked into Ireland from Portugal, Venezuela, Brazil and Nigeria.
Thomas Carroll was jailed for seven years and Clark for three-and-a-half years. Toma Carroll was jailed for two years but was freed immediately because of time spent in custody awaiting trial.
Thomas Carroll and Clark moved their “headquarters” to Castlemartin, Pembrokeshire, Wales, after the gardai uncovered the prostitution ring running in the Republic and the North.
All the women, who were mainly from South America, Portugal and Nigeria, worked as prostitutes here, in Britain and the North, with some moving around to different locations to ensure customers always had “fresh” faces to choose from.
Six of the women had been trafficked and forced into prostitution.
It is a trap that many women find almost impossible to escape from, according to Geraldine Rowley of Ruhama, which works with women involved in prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation, including women who are victims of sex trafficking.
“Though there have been instances when the State, through the gardai, have managed to free women, in most cases, girls have to free themselves from their traffickers, which is risky and dangerous and demands they display both courage and resilience,” she says.
“When a woman is a victim of trafficking, it does not mean in the majority of cases that she is physically chained or in a locked room with the windows barred — though that does happen.
“In most cases, it is their minds that are imprisoned. All the women who were the victims in the Carroll case were allowed to come and go and let out during the day. They worked on their own but they were constantly under the control of Carroll and his gang,” she adds.
It has now emerged that all the women trafficked were from Nigeria and came from Benin City and the surrounding rural areas in the state of Edo in the south-west of the country.
Some 80 per cent of the women from Nigeria who have come to the attention of the authorities here came from this area. All had taken part in ceremonies or traditional African rituals where they swore an oath to do what they were told.
This ceremony is an important part of their belief system. When they swear the oath, they do not know that they are being sent to another country to work in the sex trade. Many think they are going abroad for education or other work.
In the Carroll case, some of the women were told they were going to Ireland to work as seamstresses.
But when they arrived here the reality was different and they were working as prostitutes within days of arrival. In their own minds, they were tied by the oath of obedience.
In a statement supplied to police, one of the girls told how she suffered verbal abuse because she was crying. She was told this was “putting the customers off”. It is understood the girl was just 17.
As part of the oath, they were told by a shaman or witch doctor back in their home country that they would die, or someone they loved would die, if they did not adhere to this code of obedience.
Once here, the control was copperfastened by threats of violence. Many were assaulted.
Until three or four years ago, Nigerian prostitutes did not work in Ireland — now they form the biggest foreign cohort working in the sex trade — though Brazilian women have also been sent here, or arrived of their own volition over the last few years.
According to Ms Rowley, some of the girls are very intelligent, though poorly schooled. Many of those who have escaped the clutches of traffickers have made extremely good progress since they went back into education.
Many of the women were born into difficult and abusive families and into poverty. In some cases, there is a background of sexual abuse. It means they are the perfect targets for the traffickers and the sexual exploiters.
Putting it in very cold business terms, the traffickers have realised that this part of Nigeria is a rich harvesting ground filled with a human commodity — women who are easy to control and ripe for exploitation.
Because of their status as aliens in this country, the women are almost entirely in fear of going to the authorities and they come from a culture where corruption is rife. They believe only those with money can expect that their complaints to police will have any impact.
“If you ask any of these women ‘Why didn’t you go to the police’, they just look at you. They would say to us ‘you need money to go to the police’,” says Ms Rowley.
“The traffickers in their home country would have the money and, therefore, in the minds of the girls, they would have the power,” she added.
Many of the women who are undocumented become dependent on their pimps to protect them from the authorities. It is this climate of fear that keeps them under control and afraid to strike for their freedom.
“I think the Carroll case did shock people. These stories even shock us,” says Ms Rowley.
“They are horrendous on a human level. As part of the ritual back in Edo to ensure obedience, one woman was put in a coffin during this ritual. This was to show her ‘If you don’t obey this is what will happen to you’.”
Ruhama is seeing 20 to 30 new women each year who have been victims of trafficking and sold into the sex industry under duress. A majority of women who are coming to Ireland, albeit from countries of poverty, do come of their own free will to work in the sex industry.
“Some of them would pay their own flight over and they would get a percentage of the money they earn but those six women involved in the Carroll case got no money and lived in terrible conditions. On the scale of exploitation, they would be extreme cases.”
What has been noticeable in recent years is that on- street prostitution is at much lower levels in Ireland. But there remains a number of women who take their chances on the street — falling prey to violence and sexual assault from punters.
“They are not going indoors because they are not going to allow anyone to control them. There is a myth out there about indoor prostitution. They call it high-class, but most of it takes place in dingy flats in unhygienic conditions,” Ms Rowley says.
Most of the women now involved in on-street prostitution are dealing with some form of addiction — either drugs or alcohol.
“What we find is that they go down the street and if they are not strung out they will call it a day when they have enough money made.”
Ruhama has a van working on the streets at night-time and sometimes the girls will get a lift back to where they live at their own time of choosing.
For most of these women working the streets, there is no pimp saying ‘you have to go with that client’. They can look into a car and sum up the potential customer and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and decide which sexual services they will offer.
But Ms Rowley says that even though they are not under the control of a pimp, most are pushed in the direction of the sex trade by financial circumstances. Many have had abusive or difficult childhoods, abusive adult relationships and dependency on alcohol or other forms of drugs.
There are always some women who choose to come here to work in the sex trade. But they quickly become dependent and have to pay the shadowy figures who set them up in apartment blocks or organise their advertising on websites. Some are paying protection money to criminal gangs, especially in the midlands and the west of Ireland.
“Some women who have come into Ruhama have said that their pimp had a gun. There are only a small group of women who can manage to keep themselves safe and have their book of regular clients, but they are few and far between,” says Ms Rowley.
“The nature of the business is that men want variety. They want different women and criminals have found that it is best to move them around a good bit.”
In the past decade or so, four women who have worked in the sex trade in Ireland have been murdered.
Last year, at the Belfast trial of a Chinese Triad human trafficker known as a “snakehead”, it emerged that a 22-year-old Chinese prostitute called Qu Mei Na was strangled and left in the boot of a car. It was learned that she had been abandoned as a baby as part of the harsh “one-child” culture in parts of China, through which female children are shunned, sold or simply killed by their family.
She was forced into sex slavery after paying Triad human traffickers to get her into Europe.
Her traffickers got her into Dublin on a student visa through one of the fake foreign student colleges before she went to Belfast in 2002.
A particular cause for concern with Ruhama is their difficulty in making any real contact with the vice trade involving Chinese women.
“We have been unable to help any Chinese women by getting them into our programme,” Ms Rowley says.
“Methods of control can change between the different ethnic groups and there is evidence that many of the Chinese women are trapped in some sort of debt bondage.
“The women are told that they owe exorbitant sums of money to pay for the travel to Ireland and their accommodation. That is one of the ways they lure women in.
“The trouble is the debt can never be paid off and they are trapped,” says the Ruhama spokeswoman.
“The Chinese community is so closely knit that it is hard to make inroads. There are different telephone numbers for the Chinese brothels which all link back to a main switchboard so it means that if the gardai move in and close a premises, they can just move on and set up again somewhere else with the same telephone numbers.”
Ireland is one of the most expensive places to buy sex, which means massive profits for the pimps, and is one of the reasons why foreign criminals have targeted this country.
Ms Rowley believes that we need a new Sexual Offences Bill to tackle the new modus operandi of the criminals, and to address the use of mobile phones and the use of the internet.
“And I think that the telephone companies need to take corporate responsibility. They should be shutting down numbers which are being used for prostitution and they should be supplying intelligence to the gardai,” she says.