Six women have been identified as victims of human trafficking after they were “forced into prostitution and exploited”, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has said.
Officers said it was the result of a “significant” investigation conducted with authorities in Romania.
They were investigating a group suspected of trafficking young women for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
Two men, 29 and 36, and a woman aged 35 have been arrested.
They are accused of controlling prostitution for gain, brothel keeping and money laundering.
On Thursday, the PSNI said the six victims, all aged in their 20s, had been enticed to travel with the false promise of lawful employment in Northern Ireland and had been trafficked through Dublin.
“The grim reality is that, upon arrival, they’re forced into prostitution and exploited,” Det Insp Rachel Miskelly said.
She accused crime groups of targeting vulnerable individuals to “identify, groom and exploit them”, adding that all the women had come from the same area of Romania, and had experienced “some form of hardship”.
“These young women have been treated appallingly,” Det Insp Miskelly continued.
“They have been forced to engage in sexual activity, and the money made at their expense lines the pockets of the crime group members.”
More victims suspected
The brothels believed to be linked to the group were in the greater Belfast area, as well as Newtownabbey.
However, police said victims were sent to various locations in Northern Ireland for sexual exploitation purposes.
A joint investigation team was set up with Romanian authorities to gather evidence on the suspects and identify potential victims.
Both teams have also been working closely with the National Crime Agency, the Public Prosecution Service, An Garda Síochána (Irish police), Woman’s Aid and the International Justice Mission.
However, police believe there are still more victims to be found.
Det Insp Miskelly urged members of the public, and human trafficking victims, to contact them with information.
“We want to help you,” she said. “I assure you that you will be treated with respect and sensitivity – every step of the way.”