DUBLIN — In August 2020 armed police, including officers from Europol, carried out a string of raids on properties across the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Lithuania. Their aim was to take down the ringleaders of “the Russians”, an elusive and violent gang that had become major players in Ireland and Northern Ireland’s heroin trade by forcing trafficked people to sell Class A drugs on the streets of numerous cities.
Among the 18 people arrested was a Lithuanian businessman in his 30s, Kęstutis Klemauskas, the alleged boss of the gang, which, over 15 years, used job offers to trick scores of unemployed Lithuanians into travelling to Ireland for paid work, only to be coerced into becoming full-time heroin and crack-dealing slaves.
The raids unearthed a treasure trove of guns and jewellery, as well as thousands of pounds and euros in vacuum-packed bundles, hidden underground. As those arrested await extradition for trial in Lithuania on a raft of charges including drug supply and human trafficking, a joint investigation by VICE World News and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has uncovered how the gang managed to take hold of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s heroin markets, building a highly lucrative business on the back of a workforce of scores of modern-day slaves supplied from 2,500 km away in Baltic Europe.
The racket – believed to have been carried out by more than one Lithuanian gang, although the Russians were the biggest players – contributed to a rise in heroin injecting and heroin deaths in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from the mid-2000 onwards. It also made life a misery for at least 65 and possibly hundreds of victims of this unique form of modern drug slavery. Meanwhile, those running the gang cleaned their drug profits by investing in property back home in Lithuania.
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Ruslanas Ušinskas, prosecutor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Investigation Division of the Klaipėda Regional Prosecutor's Office in Lithuania, said in August 2020 that the gang’s bosses allocated roles to various supervisors, from recruiters to drug dealers and fund-raisers across cities in Ireland, and in parts of Belfast.
“People who were socially vulnerable were found and promised a good job abroad. Through that scheme, they were deported, forced to distribute drugs on the streets of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and some were abused. The lowest link, the street distributors, were the vulnerable people,” Ušinskas said.
According to arrest warrants, and interviews conducted by VICE World News and OCCRP, the Russians – whose nickname likely stemmed from some Irish people’s inability to tell people from different Eastern European countries apart – used intimidation and extreme violence to control every aspect of their victims’ lives, right down to when they ate meals.
So-called “supervisors”, members of the gang who presided over runners’ day-to-day drug sales, ordered their victims not to have breakfast before they had sold enough heroin each day, so that it would be easier to swallow packages if they were stopped by police. One victim in Belfast was seen having their stomach cut open as punishment for eating without permission. Another man was also “gutted” by the gang in the middle of a busy street over a small debt. Crimes such as these were often not investigated because runners were too afraid to go to the police.
“There were hundreds of people trafficked,” Tadas, a former member of the Russians whose name has been changed for his own safety, told VICE World News and OCCRP. “They [the trafficked people] would get beaten brutally if they did not obey or made mistakes. I saw people dying. I realised that there were horrible things happening. I am not that kind of person.” Tadas says that when he saw the reality of the business he had joined, he fled.
But those at the bottom of the gang’s pyramid found themselves trapped.
Robertas, whose name has also been changed out of fears for his safety, left Lithuania after a friend of a friend offered him some “security work” in Ireland. It was an opportunity to leave a life of poverty and problems with addiction behind.
His mysterious new employers were very accommodating, hiring a private minibus to take him and others, via ferries, from Lithuania to Dublin. Someone else would fill out all the relevant work-related forms, ensuring that everything was legitimate.
“Of course we were scared. We were all afraid. Imagine, you don't have a passport, you don’t know the language. We were afraid to go to the police, because we thought of ourselves as criminals”
Arriving in Dublin with no English-language skills and very little money to his name, Robertas met another Lithuanian man, who informed him that he’d be stationed in Ireland’s southernmost county, Cork. After a brief rest in a nearby house, Robertas hopped on a commercial bus in possession of contact details for his new manager, who would help him get set up.
But something had seemed off back at the Dublin address. His new employers avoided telling him what exactly the new job entailed. Then they took his passport.
Robertas met his new boss at a bus station in Cork. After introducing himself to Robertas, the man turned around and started distributing small plastic wraps to a group of intimidating-looking Irish people who were gathered in the street nearby. Robertas quickly realised it was heroin being sold to drug users.
“No one explained anything,” says Robertas. “But I understood exactly what was happening.” He was now a prisoner. His new job was to sell heroin on the streets of Cork. The gang threatened to murder him if he didn’t comply with their demands. Later, he met other victims who had been subject to extreme violence, and heard stories of people trafficked by the gang who had simply vanished without a trace.
Although most victims are too scared to give evidence and many go missing, authorities have managed to so far identify at least 65 people, the vast majority Lithuanian men, who were forced to sell drugs on this gang’s behalf in Ireland and Northern Ireland between 2015 to 2020. But former gang affiliates who helped victims say that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg and that “hundreds” were likely recruited by the gang, who have been significant players in Ireland’s heroin trade since around 2010, and active since at least 2005.
“Eastern European gangs can come in with a readymade reputation; it can be incredibly useful for them”
Why was Ireland chosen by the gang? It was partly by chance. Like thousands of other Lithuanians, witness testimonies show that in the mid-2000s, Klemauskas moved to Ireland. Once he was there, he started a shoplifting racket and dealt in stolen goods. Afterwards he moved to selling drugs, presumably because profit margins for drug dealing were, and still are, very high in Ireland. Data released in 2019 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that the street price of heroin in Ireland is the second highest in Europe. Drugs are very expensive in Northern Ireland, too: An eighth of a gram of heroin sells for approximately £25, a substantially higher price than in most other European countries.
Besides the money, police weren’t attuned to disrupting the kind of business model used by the Russians, and it was easy for Klemauskas to recruit a slew of extremely poorly paid runners for almost nothing—straight from Lithuania. Victims were forced to sell heroin in almost every major city on the island of Ireland, with substantial operations in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Waterford, and Tralee, county Kerry. According to eyewitnesses who spoke with VICE and OCCRP, the gang is linked to shootings, stabbings, weapon smuggling, and other violent crimes.
Using several members stationed in Lithuania who acted as recruiters, the gang primarily preyed on the vulnerable: alcoholics, addicted drug users, and prison leavers. Some victims, like Robertas, report being approached with word-of-mouth offers of employment abroad. Others responded to advertisements placed in Lithuanian broadsheet newspapers, as well as online platforms.
In Cork, as in other cities, the gang ran phone lines for prospective customers, developing a reputation for arranging drug deals within 10 minutes, a lot quicker than rival dealers. They specialised in heroin, but also sold cocaine, crack, ecstasy and, for a time, the mephedrone-like MEC, which they referred to as “white”.
Robertas was paid a pittance and stayed in squalid accommodation in Cork City centre. His supervisor, who managed several other trafficked Lithuanian men, gave him strict instructions. He’d carry around 10 wraps of heroin in his mouth, and replenish them from a hidden stash. Throughout the day, someone would call Robertas with directions for where to meet customers. Once he’d finished selling a consignment, Robertas was to contact his supervisor, who would collect the proceeds and give him more drugs. If confronted by Ireland’s police force, An Garda Síochána, Robertas would swallow whatever drugs he had.
“Of course we were scared. We were all afraid. Imagine, you don't have a passport, you don’t know the language. We were afraid to go to the police, because we thought of ourselves as criminals,” says Robertas.
Street dealers were easily replaced if arrested, deported, or killed. As soon as police took one Lithuanian dealer off the streets, another would replace them. The gang simply relocated runners identified by police, creating a conveyor belt of vulnerable, trafficked people moving around the island of Ireland. This posed considerable difficulties for police. In 2014, Belfast High Court heard how a Police Service of Northern Ireland sting that got 20 people arrested had zero impact on the gang’s activities.
The threat of violence was ever present. Supervisors often broke limbs for insubordination or the mishandling of drugs. The drug sellers not only suffered beatings and stabbings from their bosses but also functioned as a buffer between higher-up members of the Russians, rival local gangs and drug users who didn’t want to pay for their latest fix. On one occasion, Robertas was stabbed by heroin users as he stood selling drugs in the street.
“There were maybe four [attackers],” he says. “It all happened so quickly. I didn’t understand why they did it. I looked around and they had all left, so I headed for the hospital.” As he received treatment, Robertas’ supervisor, who spoke fluent English, conversed with the doctors treating his wounds, ensuring that he kept quiet about the gang’s activities. Robertas needed surgery because of an injury he received trying to stop the knife attack, but the supervisor brought him to another city, where he would sell more heroin, alongside other victims.
VICE World News and OCCRP traced the gang’s activities back to the mid-2000s. At that time, according to witnesses, members moved into a house on Belfast’s Donegall Road, a Loyalist community, and began dealing heroin they had sourced from Dublin.
Soon, they engaged in tit-for-tat drive-by shootings with a group of local paramilitaries who were unhappy about their activities. Eventually, the shootings ceased, and the gang continued to sell heroin in South Belfast, especially around the Holylands area. This suggests, according to two sources with knowledge of Northern Ireland’s drug trade, that the Russians negotiated a financial arrangement with paramilitaries – the armed sectarian groups who controlled the criminal underworld in the region at the time.
The Russians reportedly encouraged confusion about their origins, telling victims to claim they were Russian if picked up by authorities. It’s possible that portrayals of Russian gangsters in popular culture — a lot of films in the last 20 years contain imagery of hyper-violent, hyper-organised Russian crime groups — worked in their favour.
“Eastern European gangs can come in with a readymade reputation; it can be incredibly useful for them,” says James Windle, a professor and lecturer in criminology at University College Cork. “When people talk about ‘the Russian mafia’, it tends to include all former Eastern European states, and I think some have almost used that because there’s a global reputation.”
It's also important to acknowledge that the Russians could not have operated without the assistance of Irish criminals, most notably in their sourcing of heroin. They became a convenient group for the authorities, paramilitaries and politicians to blame for any crimes deemed to be connected to drugs or violence.
What’s clear is that once they settled, the Russians transformed the drug trade across the island of Ireland. They were the first crime group to sell heroin on a large scale in Northern Ireland, where organised drug dealing is a relatively recent phenomenon. Heavy policing, border security, and the targeting of users by paramilitary groups during the Troubles - an extremely violent sectarian conflict that took place in Northern Ireland and Ireland over the course of about four decades - largely kept a lid on the trade. Peace, in the form of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, mostly ended the fighting, but it also freed up the drug trade.
In particular, the Provisional IRA, a Republican group which, before formally ending its activities in 2005, attempted to establish a United Ireland through armed struggle, saw “addicts” as weak links within communities. They thought that for a bag of drugs, heroin users could be coerced into revealing Republican activity by both British armed forces and Loyalist paramilitaries – both of which sought to secure the continued existence of Northern Ireland by violent means, often colluding with each other. Post-Good Friday, many paramilitary groups, especially Loyalist ones, stepped up their involvement in dealing, both selling drugs themselves and receiving payments from criminal gangs who wanted to operate in various parts of Northern Ireland.
Republican paramilitaries have largely stopped shooting dealers and users in recent years, particularly after the 2015 murder of Gerard “Jock” Davison, a member of the Provisional IRA’s “Direct Action Against Drugs” group throughout the 1990s. A report from the Irish News, a Belfast newspaper, suggested that a Lithuanian gang was involved in supplying weapons to the criminals who killed the former Republican activist.
Gintas Vengalis was a supervisor for the gang’s Belfast operation, overseeing several runners, arranging drug shipments, and sending money back to Lithuania. In 2012, the Irish government began extradition proceedings against him, but high court records indicate that the hearing never went ahead. In May 2015, when living in Northern Ireland and going by the nickname “Russian Anton”, he received a 42-month prison sentence after being caught in a PSNI sting under Operation Envimo, which sought to tackle heroin-dealing in Belfast. His imprisonment made little difference: By 2016, the Belfast Telegraph reported how the Russians openly sold heroin outside Royal Victoria and Belfast City hospitals.
After his release from prison sometime in 2017, Vengalis appears to have spent some of his time travelling around Ireland, moving between cities where the Russians operated. He received a four-month suspended sentence in January 2020 for producing a fake Lithuanian driving licence at Prince’s Quay, Tralee, in October 2019. He was also disqualified from driving for four years for driving without insurance or a licence that same month, ultimately receiving another suspended sentence of three months. Arrested during the 2020 raids, Vengalis now awaits an extradition hearing.
Lukas, also speaking on condition of anonymity and whose name has been changed because of safety concerns, said he was enslaved by Vengalis and others, including a number of Irish people who did business with the Russians. Like Robertas, he was living in poverty in Lithuania and offered work abroad. When he arrived in Dublin, the gang took his documents and shipped him to a different city, where he sold heroin on the streets under duress.
“They told me that there is a well-paid job in construction, but that it was in Ireland, and if I have the documents, if I want to make money, I can go to Ireland with him the next day,” he said, speaking with VICE World News and OCCRP. “I agreed because I wanted to work… I was told that I had to give my details, and better yet, an ID card, because his friends had to buy me plane tickets for which they would pay, and I would later refund them in instalments.”
Upon arrival in Belfast, Lukas was brought to a large house with at least three floors. Tired from travelling, he ate and retired to his room, where he went to sleep. Soon he woke up to the sounds of a man screaming in agony in another room, begging for his life, as other men beat him to near death with what sounded like blunt instruments.
“There were muffled pounding sounds… I was really scared because it all happened suddenly and unexpectedly,” he says. “Then everything fell silent. I can't remember all the small details now, but I was told that I was indebted for the trip from Lithuania, and until I repaid the debt, I would have to live here and pay off my debt by selling their product. When I said I wouldn’t sell [drugs], and that I was better working in construction, I was told I could only build a tombstone for myself, and if I made trouble, I would end up under the ground.”
Lukas now understood why the gang’s recruiter had been so interested in whether he had relatives or friends in Lithuania. They wanted to know if anyone would come looking if he went missing.
He’d heard rumours that there were several gangs who gathered vulnerable Lithuanians and sent them to Spain, England, Ireland, and other countries, where they’d be forced to steal from shops, withdraw money from ATMs, and sell drugs. Anyone who disobeyed was simply killed. Like Robertas, he waited for phone calls telling him where to meet customers. He sold to random people on the street, too.
“I was locked in a room, and when I said I wanted to go to the toilet, they threw in a bucket. If I talked back, I was beaten. It really got scary for me because I realised that if I disobeyed, they would kill me. That's how I became a slave in Northern Ireland.”
Members of the gang forcibly injected Lukas with heroin during the first two weeks of his captivity so that he couldn’t escape. He says he was blindfolded each morning and driven to various locations across Belfast, with instructions to sell heroin from around 10AM until 10PM. When the workday ended, someone picked him up, blindfolded him again, and brought him back to the large house. Higher-up members of the gang then paid him in heroin, locking him in his room until the next day, when it was time to sell drugs again.
“Judge Mary Fahy described a house in Galway, a city on Ireland’s west coast, as “like a type of Lithuanian embassy for known drug dealers”
At least 20 key people were involved in managing the Russians’ operation since 2015, according to an arrest warrant seen by VICE World News and OCCRP. Five supervisors assigned to various locations received orders from two lieutenants, who were to arrange the distribution of drugs once the leader of the gang had purchased them from Dublin gangs at a price of around €45,000 (about £38,000) a kilo.
According to one source, a chemist cut the drugs before they were sent across the country. While moving large amounts of drugs, the gang used trusted carriers, including Mantas Narkus, who in 2019 was described in Tralee Circuit Criminal Court as “not the top man… but well up the chain of command”. Narkus, caught on a bus in Tralee, in the south of Ireland, with 230 wraps of heroin inside a black sock, was sentenced to four years prison for his role of distributing heroin across Ireland for the gang.
On other occasions, trafficking victims held drugs while riding public, cross-country coaches. When bringing their product to Belfast, the gang often travelled the Dublin-Drogheda-Dundalk-Belfast corridor, a well-known route for smuggling drugs into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. Cash from selling heroin was shipped back to Lithuania by couriers or concealed in packages. The gang subsequently laundered their proceeds through Lithuanian businesses, or just physically hid cash.
Scores of cases involving Lithuanian men selling heroin have been before Irish courts since the Russians showed up. Many claimed to have been victims of human trafficking.
In 2013, Lithuanian national Rustam Riabov told Judge Eugene O’Kelly at Limerick District Court how a trafficking gang ordered him to sell heroin in Limerick city. In 2014, Zilvinas Antonovas explained that a trafficking gang had tricked him into coming to Ireland after police caught him selling heroin on Dublin’s Exchequer Street. In March 2016, Judge Mary Fahy described a house in Galway, a city on Ireland’s west coast, as “like a type of Lithuanian embassy for known drug dealers.” At one point, the gang had trafficked so many victims to the island of Ireland from its base in Plungė, in Western Lithuania, that it had no choice but to shift recruitment efforts to a different city, Šiauliai.
Toward the end of 2017, the Russians were referred to Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, which assists police forces from different countries in conducting multi-jurisdictional operations. In 2018, members of the PSNI, AGS, and the Lithuanian police established a cross-border team to dismantle the Russians. The three police forces held six meetings facilitated by Eurojust. They adopted a “common strategy” and planned joint actions.
The Russians responded with a campaign of intimidation against authorities attempting to rein in their activities. In 2018, it was reported that a member of An Garda Síochána’s Drugs Unit suffered an acid attack at the hands of the gang. The officer is understood to have been travelling home along Dublin’s N2 motorway when a man drove by and sprayed him with acid. Authorities are said to believe the officer was followed as he left Blanchardstown Garda station in West Dublin. Members of the gang also reportedly turned up at his child’s school.
In August 2020, police were ready to move. Using European Arrest Warrants issued the previous month, the Lithuanian police, the PSNI, AGS, and Europol conducted eight raids that took place in Dublin, Waterford, Kerry, and Cork, as well as five properties in Belfast, and Lithuania. Over €700,000 (about £590,000) of assets were seized, and authorities found separate cash piles of approximately €136,000 (about £115,000), and €12,400 (about £10,500) belonging to the gang buried underground.
Commenting on the raids at the time, Jari Liukku, the head of Europol’s Serious Organised Crime Centre, said: “These are fantastic results that are the culmination of a major investigation involving teams from across Europe working closely together to target criminals who are causing harm in local communities. I hope people are reassured by this robust and coordinated approach, which sends a loud and clear message to those involved in the supply of Class A drugs: We will pursue you tirelessly and relentlessly.”
Of the eight suspected ringleaders arrested, one was Klemauskas, the alleged kingpin. He had had a presence in Ireland since at least 2009, with an address in Dublin’s North Strand, and flitted between homes in Ireland and Lithuania multiple times each year.
He owns at least two companies in his home country, one of which, UAB Skrajeta, exists only on paper. The other is a large car garage called UAB Transfortas, in Plungė, which was established in 2016 and formally registered in 2016. According to the financial documents of Transfortas, the company's assets are worth some £363,000 (about €436,000), and many of the initial investments came as loans from Klemauskas. Some sources interviewed by VICE and OCCRP claim the value of the business might be much bigger than the official figures.
Documents seen by VICE World News and OCCRP indicate Klemauskas may have purchased multiple properties using the names of his associates, friends and relatives. This includes his partner Jurgita Rupeikiene, who has multiple properties in her and her family’s name. She declined to comment when contacted by VICE World News and OCCRP. Among the gang’s properties were two apartments in Palanga, a resort town on Lithuania’s Baltic coast, as well as three houses and a plot of land in the north west district of Plungė. Additional apartments and newly built houses purchased by other affiliates of the gang indicate that it had amassed a fortune worth millions of euros before being apprehended.
Klemauskas was well known to both Irish and Lithuanian authorities prior to the August 2020 raids on the gang. In December 2009, he received a six-month suspended sentence from Cork’s Bandon Court for stealing groceries worth €730 in June of that year. He was charged by Irish authorities in mid-2014 with possession of a controlled substance as well as possession of a controlled substance with intent to supply, at Crosby’s Yard Apartments, in Dublin. The Irish government later, for unknown reasons, dropped the charges, and he walked free. Klemauskas was fined €2,500 by Ireland’s Revenue for possession of untaxed tobacco for sale in March 2020.
In May 2020, after UAB Transfortas did not win a tender for a car repair service contract, Klemauskas allegedly ordered two men, Egidijus Šliuoža and Vitalijus Novokreščenovas, to set fire to a car belonging to Mindaugas Kaunas, the head of the Plungė District Municipality Administration. Kaunas believes the arson attack was likely sparked by the public tenders the Russians failed to win. If convicted of the offence of destruction of property in a dangerous manner, Klemauskas faces up to five years in prison, in addition to any sentence he may receive related to drug dealing or human trafficking.
One of Klemauskas’ two alleged lieutenants, Andrius Pagojus, was among those arrested in the August 2020 raids. It’s unclear if the other lieutenant, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was arrested at that time. Pagojus, 39, stood accused of collecting and storing money gained from the sale of illegal drugs. But it is believed he killed himself in January 2021, in Dublin’s Wheatfield Prison, after reportedly ingesting an unknown substance. Another alleged supervisor, Aurimas Mecius, based in the southern Irish port city of Waterford, who is accused of violently controlling seven street dealers, was reported to have been hospitalised because he ingested the same substance on the same occasion.
Donatas Ravickas, who allegedly controlled at least 15 dealers in Cork and Belfast, is on remand as he awaits an extradition hearing. Rokas Venckus, who allegedly supervised five heroin dealers in Tralee, county Kerry, and Belfast, has consented to surrendering himself to Lithuania to face trial, but the Irish government wishes to delay the process so he can serve a sentence related to heroin possession. It is claimed Venckus took part in a credit card scam in Northern Ireland in 2010. His case is due to appear at Ireland’s High Court again in April 2023. And Sandra Pagojé, Pagojus’ widow, is currently out on bail awaiting an extradition hearing, having purportedly booked flights for men who later became victims of criminal exploitation.
Another man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was one of the group’s five supervisors, overseeing several trafficked individuals in an Irish city. Reports indicate that he was previously convicted by a UK court of assault and burglary, serving a stint in prison afterwards.
Other than Venckus, alleged members of the Russians facing charges in Ireland argue that they should not face extradition because prison conditions in Lithuania are inhumane. Whether they face trial in Lithuania will likely depend on a precedent set by another case before the Irish High Court, involving Irish man Liam Campbell, whom authorities have accused of travelling to Lithuania to smuggle weapons for the Real IRA sometime between 2006 and 2007. Campbell is currently challenging a ruling by the High Court that he faces trial in Lithuania. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.
In Northern Ireland, Gintas Vengalis, supervisor for the gang’s Belfast operation, remains on remand in Maghaberry prison since the August 2020 arrests. Lithuanian authorities are seeking him in relation to charges of human trafficking, criminal association, unlawful possession of narcotic or psychotropic substances for the purposes of distribution, and laundering criminal property. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In his arrest warrant, Vengalis is referenced as being directly responsible for sourcing vulnerable people for the purposes of trafficking into the UK and Ireland. His extradition hearing is due in May.
Extradition notwithstanding, prosecuting alleged traffickers is a lengthy and challenging process. In Lithuania, victims are sometimes reluctant to cooperate with authorities because they are offered very few protections. Those who take part in criminal proceedings may be threatened, intimidated, stalked, financially influenced, or even physically punished, says Mažvydas Karalius, a researcher at the Diversity and Development group, in Vilnius, Lithuania. Victims can be found by their traffickers, who are often embedded in the same communities.
“It can be one of the reasons why pretrial investigations are terminated in Lithuania,” he says. “Undoubtedly, it gives justifications for some to claim trafficking victims as untrustworthy. But before stating so, shouldn’t we ask how many of us would participate in proceedings under such circumstances?” Victims who spoke with VICE World News and OCCRP are now in hiding, having received little or no protection from the authorities.
People have been asking why this trafficking ring was able to run for well over a decade without being stopped. The truth is that Ireland’s record on human trafficking is dismal. Just two people have been convicted of human trafficking in Ireland despite evidence that the country is being targeted by trafficking gangs from Eastern Europe and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is also fertile ground for gangs involved in trafficking. In 2019, 39 people died in the back of a lorry in Essex as they were driven along a smuggling route linked to Northern Ireland. Last March, the PSNI dismantled a Georgian gang which had been providing forged documents to traffickers bringing people to Ireland.
The U.S. State Department’s last two Trafficking in Persons Reports criticised Ireland for its lax approach to tackling human trafficking, and in 2020, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) highlighted Ireland’s failure to establish a robust National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The country has historically relied on its police force to identify victims. The reports also call on Ireland to increase efforts to protect all victims, especially of labour trafficking and forced criminality, plus a specific legal provision on the non-punishment of victims of trafficking.
The Irish government says it is working on a new national strategy that will particularly promote public awareness of trafficking, complementing a new, multidisciplinary NRM, a move that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission says would “significantly” enhance efforts to identify victims.
“It won’t just be about encouraging victims to come forward; it will be about what we as a society can do,” said Helen McEntee TD, Ireland’s minister for justice since June 2020, speaking to VICE World News and OCCRP.
“We’re looking at how people can come forward–that it’s not just the police [victims can turn to], they can go to the NGOs… other government agencies, whether it’s Tusla or the Department of Social Protection, or even the industry that they might work in… It’s about putting a new mechanism in place… that covers as many bases as possible and encourages as many people to come forward.”
Robertas and Lukas ultimately escaped by engaging with authorities, anti-trafficking groups and the Lithuanian embassy in Ireland. But other vulnerable people are still being preyed upon by trafficking gangs. Advertisements exactly like the ones the gang placed in newspapers are still commonplace in Lithuania.
“Today if we flipped through certain pages, we would find the same advertisements, and they wouldn’t look suspicious,” said Kristina Mišinienė, a social worker with Lithuania’s Centre Against Human Trafficking and Exploitation. “The job offered, the reward… it doesn’t stand out from hundreds of other similar offers – that is what their deception can and does manifest.”
She wants people to remember the victims of the gang who left their homes and didn’t return – several sources told VICE World News and OCCRP that “runners” often disappeared, never to be seen again. Many are presumed dead.
“Think of their fates: They perished in the countries they travelled to in search of happiness,” she said.
At the time of writing, the alleged ringleaders of the Russians are still awaiting a trial date.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, there are organisations that can help you. These include, but are not limited to: the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Flourish NI, Migrant Help UK, the International Organization for Migration, and the Centre Against Human Trafficking and Exploitation.