By Emma Batha
LONDON, Feb 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ireland has made it a crime to buy sex after passing a law which it says is aimed at tackling sex trafficking and protecting hundreds of vulnerable women in prostitution.
The country follows Canada, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland in introducing legislation designed to punish men who use prostitutes without criminalising those driven into prostitution.
But some sex workers say the crackdown will drive prostitution underground, placing women at greater risk by forcing them to work in more isolated areas.
Under the new law which came into force on Wednesday, anyone convicted of using a prostitute in Ireland faces a maximum fine of 500 euros ($525) for a first offence and 1,000 euros for a second. Anyone who uses a trafficked woman faces up to five years in jail.
"This law will, for the first time in our history, firmly place legal responsibility on the exploiters rather than the exploited," said campaigner Rachel Moran, who worked in prostitution for seven years from the age of 15, and has led calls for reform.
"It will have the effect of educating future generations ... as to the simple wrongfulness of buying your way inside someone else's body, and it will finally frame prostitution as the act of violence that it is."
But opponents say the new law will mean sex workers have no time to assess a client or negotiate before jumping in his car.
Laura Lee, a sex worker and law school graduate, predicted attacks on sex workers would rise and said talk of sex trafficking in Ireland had been blown out of proportion.
"This has nothing to do with trafficking - that's a smokescreen," said Lee. "It's hooded abolition and an attempt to put a complete stop to prostitution.
"We should be looking out for the most vulnerable women in society - not trying to make their lives ten times harder."
TRAPPED IN DEBT
The government, which has held consultations with groups on both sides of the debate, says research from Sweden and Norway did not conclude sex workers had been placed at greater risk.
Ruhama, a support group for women affected by prostitution and co-founder of Ireland's Turn Off The Red Light campaign to end prostitution and sex trafficking, estimates hundreds of women in the country have been trafficked.
It said over a quarter of the women it helped were trafficked from countries including Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia, Romania and Bulgaria.
"We are seeing some women who are totally deceived. They are told they have a job as a nanny and will be learning English. But they are placed straight into a brothel," said Ruhama CEO Sarah Benson.
"Some are broken. They might be raped by whoever has organised their travel or received them in this country."
She said women often become trapped by debt after being told they had to repay large sums for passports, flights and rent.
Benson said although the law will not end prostitution it will make Ireland less attractive to traffickers because it will reduce demand.
The new Sexual Offences legislation also strengthens laws on child exploitation and pornography.
Northern Ireland outlawed the purchase of sex in 2015. Lee, who works both sides of the border, is preparing a legal challenge against the legislation in Northern Ireland at a High Court hearing set for April.
($1 = 0.9515 euros) (Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)