‘We deserve a fresh start’: The UK’s female victims of slavery
How a system that is supposed to support survivors of sex trafficking leaves them feeling triggered and vulnerable.
Emily’s* experience of child exploitation began when she was 11 and a middle-aged neighbour started cajoling her into smuggling packs of drugs around towns in northern England and Wales.
Every drug run was a carefully orchestrated act of deception. Emily would be driven from house to house in the neighbour’s car. To anyone who saw them, they looked like a young girl out with her father. Police officers on patrol were unlikely to suspect that tucked under her blouse were plastic bags filled with cocaine, heroin and weed.
To Emily, who lived on an estate on the derelict fringes of a Welsh seaside town, where drug trafficking was rife and girls as young as eight were roped in to deliver drugs in their toy prams, it felt exhilarating – like going on an adventure with an adult conspirator. Violence was common. On one of her drug runs, Emily witnessed one man attack another with an axe.
The neighbour handled all the cash, but would give her a bit of money to buy cigarettes or snacks. These small gifts felt like rewards.
As she grew older and began experimenting with drugs herself, he demanded sexual favours in exchange for a steady supply of pills.
Bullied at school, Emily began to see her neighbour as her only friend. “When I was with him, I felt important, like I was really doing something,” she says over the phone.
By 14, Emily was constantly playing truant, dealing drugs herself, and had been expelled from school once for fighting. “I just didn’t care about anything anymore,” she recalls ruefully.
That was the year she was gang-raped by three men. When they had finished raping her, she says they dropped her off by the side of a road like she was “a piece of rubbish”.
“There were no thoughts in my head. I was just bloodied, battered, and in indescribable pain,” Emily explains.
From then, she careened into substance abuse and depression. “I felt like there was nothing for me, and even though I was in drug and alcohol support, I’d never follow through. It felt like I shouldn’t bother,” she remembers.
She never told her parents about the drug trafficking or the sexual assault, and they assumed that she was just going through an especially stormy phase of teenage rebellion. “My mum and dad are absolutely normal, they don’t drink, smoke or take drugs,” she says. “There’s a naivete about them, they’re completely strait-laced and didn’t know what was going on. But my mum did try. She knew how important education was, and she kept trying to make me go back to school.”
But Emily’s drug addiction made her vulnerable to those who didn’t have her best interests at heart. Some of the girls at her school knew about her desperate need for money to buy drugs, so would introduce her to numerous older men who would sexually exploit her in exchange for money.
These men would also traffic her to others. Emily estimates that over the course of her teenage years, she was raped approximately 1,560 times, in run-down rooms, at the back of pubs, and wherever the men lived. She was never physically held captive, but was psychologically enslaved by her abusers, who profited off her vulnerability and kept her under control.
Only after getting pregnant with her daughter in her early 20s did she go clean and sever all contact with her traffickers. “There was a moment when I was offered drugs and I knew I couldn’t take them. I left just like that – when you’re responsible for someone else’s life, you just find that strength and you don’t engage. It was lonely, but it was worth it,” she tells me.
Today, she runs a pseudonymous account on Twitter as an anti-trafficking advocate. Her posts raise awareness of organisations and individuals working in the sector, and express solidarity with other victims and survivors.
In 2018, more than ten years after extricating herself from a string of traffickers operating across different parts of northern England and Wales, she summoned the courage to lodge a police report about the sexual exploitation she had suffered years ago. “I felt like it was something I needed to do, to face my past and look forward to the future, so the same thing wouldn’t happen to other girls and children,” she says.
When she didn’t hear back from the police, she contacted the Modern Slavery Helpline, which provides information and guidance on slavery, exploitation and abuse. It was only six months later that the police recorded her in the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework created by the UK government to identify potential victims of modern slavery and ensure they receive the right support.
Alienating the most vulnerable
Drawing on international law, the UK defines human trafficking as the recruitment, movement and receipt of people by “use of force or other forms of coercion… of deception, or of abuse of a position of vulnerability”. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which was passed in 2015, recognises that trafficking can take on various forms such as forced labour or servitude, often into criminal activity like drug smuggling, sexual exploitation in the vein of Emily’s experience, or the removal of organs. Given that the technical definitions of “slavery” and “trafficking” intersect, both terms are often used interchangeably.
While criminal and labour exploitation tend to be the most common types of modern slavery in the UK, it is sexual exploitation that disproportionately affects women and girls. Of the 1,115 adults referred to the NRM in 2020 as being sexual exploited, an overwhelming 85 percent (940) were female.
Now, the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns have made sex trafficking even harder to detect as potential victims, who were already isolated, find it near impossible to seek help, while the rise in online sex trafficking means web accounts can be quickly shut down and re-opened in a matter of clicks.
Amidst these alarming developments, cases of forced prostitution climbed by a quarter in 2020 as compared with 2019. According to Unseen, an anti-slavery charity, as many as 100,000 people could currently be victims of trafficking in the UK.
In the UK, individuals such as Emily, who are recognised as a victim of slavery through the NRM, were previously given access to a host of specialist services for a minimum of 45 days. This included legal aid, protection, compensation and counselling. But for many years, anti-trafficking groups and legal experts have been arguing vociferously that 45 days of specialist support was too little.
In September 2019, in response to the argument that the recovery process is not short, linear or straightforward, the Home Office created a new system of care known as the Recovery Needs Assessment (RNA). This was introduced to ease survivors into renewable periods of individualised and needs-based support after the initial 45 days.
But Emily’s solicitor Silvia Nicolaou Garcia, who has represented her for more than two years in her attempts to secure support from the Home Office for her recovery needs, explains that the RNA continues to be inadequate. It also makes survivors uneasy about the amount of scrutiny and control the state exerts over their lives.
“The Single Competent Authority has a narrow understanding of what recovery means in the trafficking context,” Nicolaou Garcia explains over a Zoom call, referring to the department at the Home Office that looks after cases of slavery and exploitation.
“In many cases, the needs survivors have arising out of their trafficking experiences can last months, years or even a lifetime. Survivors often don’t feel ready to engage in therapy or other recovery-related activities whilst waiting to be identified as a victim of trafficking.”
Nicolaou Garcia, who specialises in cases pertaining to human rights and trafficking, believes the way the RNA is set up renders support to be withheld or terminated until repeated assessments have taken place to “prove” that survivors need additional support.
Research is currently being carried out to understand how these repetitive assessments can be damaging for survivors at the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), a coalition of 17 organisations set up in 2009 to monitor the UK’s implementation of anti-slavery legislation.
Beth Mullan-Feroze is a policy officer who has been working on a year-long project to assess the implementation of the RNA via survivor-informed recommendations. Her team, including two policy and monitoring assistants who have undergone the RNA, found that survivors were stressed out and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of documentation that is demanded of them — even going down to receipts for food.
“The general feedback is that not only is this incredibly draining, but also leads to a feeling that they’re not believed. The stress just feeds into their previous experience of trafficking and exploitation,” Mullan-Feroze says.
Survivors also end up applying for extension after extension to the RNA, providing almost identical evidence. “With these small, short bursts of support, survivors can’t really take steps towards recovery because they don’t know if they’re able to have their needs met in the next four weeks,” Mullan-Feroze adds.
To make things worse, the current version of the RNA indicates that if a survivor has sources of income that cover their basic needs, they will not receive any additional financial support. Asylum seekers found to have been trafficked get no more than a weekly allowance of £39.63 ($52), while awaiting a decision on whether they can stay in the UK. The poverty line for a single adult of working age in the UK is £141 ($186) per week.
Until March 2020, British survivors and others with the right to remain in the UK were not given any money to meet their recovery needs as they were wrongly assumed to not have any trafficking-related needs — simply because they were working or had access to benefits. Thousands of trafficking survivors were left to fend for themselves, seeking out ways to place them on the path to recovery, while barely subsisting on the meagre support offered to them.
Nicolaou Garcia believes individuals should not have to prove their needs to senseless minute detail. “I’m really worried about how traumatising it is for survivors to undergo these assessments just to get their most basic of needs covered,” she says knowing what it has been like for Emily, who over a decade after shaking off her abusers, realised that the Herculean effort to get support for her recovery was just beginning.
“I’m not asking for much, I just want to get some kind of qualification – any kind. I don’t even have basic maths or English, and employers always ask, ‘Well, what’s your previous qualification?’” says Emily.
But her request for financial support for education was denied under the RNA, as it was not deemed to be directly relevant to her experience of being trafficked – despite the fact that her trafficker had lured her out of school in the first place. These refusals have kept her working in the same part-time job, unable to find an alternative livelihood. Because she lives in relatively close proximity to some of her traffickers, for safety reasons, she is unable to reveal the nature of her work to me.
Every few weeks, in order to continue receiving the assistance she is entitled to under the RNA, Emily has to fill in the same forms explaining her needs. Her request to carry on with her remotely-conducted psychotherapy sessions was abruptly refused after just three sessions, with the Home Office stating that they were not needed despite her circumstances.
Most invasive, however, were the documents she was told to submit as part of the evidence for her needs. “I asked for some help with travel to my mental health appointments, and for extra Internet data that I could use to speak to my support worker and solicitor. I was having to travel to places with Wi-Fi just so I could have some of these conversations, because the Internet coverage in my area isn’t good,” she says.
The response from the Home Office was that she had to show proof of the distances she had covered by car to her various appointments, and screenshots of all of her phone bills. “As a survivor of slavery, it’s triggering to have to show someone my private emails, tell them exactly what I’m doing and where I’m going to be,” Emily explains.
Owing to lack of availability in the area, Emily was assigned a support worker based 322 kilometres (200 miles) from where she lives in Wales. This meant that all her counselling sessions had to be done over the phone. Finding this inadequate given her complex needs, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Emily ended up having to secure free counselling herself through her GP. She was only entitled to 12 sessions, which were insufficient for her.
‘Nobody cares about those women’
Advocacy groups and charities working in the anti-trafficking sector confirm that the state continues to underestimate the deep-seated distress that survivors of slavery must grapple with. Pippa Hockton, a trained psychotherapist, founded the charity Street Talk in 2005 to offer counselling and other specialist mental health care for women in street-based prostitution across London. Many of the women that she sees are so vulnerable that it is hard for them to engage with the standard therapy that is offered via the UK’s publicly-funded National Health Service (NHS).
Hockton’s motivation for setting up Street Talk arose from a keen consciousness of the inequalities that exist in the provision of mental health services. “They’ve had terrible trauma in childhood, didn’t receive any help, and are living with PTSD. Some have been to prison, to mental hospitals. They may not have the right documentation to stay in this country. If they put their head over the parapet, they’ll be deported,” she says.
With most therapy services, if one session is missed, the patient doesn’t get another in the future. “Whereas we would hold that place for somebody… because if you don’t have the capacity to keep to an appointment and it’s taken away from you, that’s a failure of the service,” Hockton explains over Zoom.
She recalls several bone-chilling anecdotes that encapsulate the appalling treatment of the women she works with. While working as a therapist within the NHS in the early 2000s, she had seen a male patient who admitted to meeting up with women working in street prostitution and scarring them with a knife. When she expressed concern over his behaviour, he had simply laughed and said: “Nobody cares about those women”.
More recently, Hockton recalls a Nigerian woman in her 60s who came into her care. Fearful about being sent to an immigration removal centre after escaping from her traffickers, the woman ended up being re-trafficked by a different group of people. Her new abusers paid her about £5 ($6.60) per week to clean clothing shops, and housed her in a crammed property with other trafficked women. When shops were closed during the first lockdown, she was turned out onto the street. A priest found her sleeping in the doorway of his church in London, and contacted Street Talk. By then, she was in very poor health.
Today, Street Talk supports about 150 women. Hockton is determined to continue helping them. “I’ve seen a lot of the women I work with die from neglect of one sort or another, and their deaths could have been easily preventable, if not for systemic failures,” she says.
At The Passage, another London-based charity that aims to prevent and end homelessness, there is growing apprehension about the increasing number of trafficked women who are sleeping rough, simply because so little help is available to them. “The majority of our clients are usually male, but for the moment we only have female clients,” says Júlia Tomás, the charity’s anti-slavery co-ordinator. “This is the first time it’s happened.” She thinks that the majority of the women have fled domestic servitude or sexual exploitation during the pandemic.
The female survivors that Tomás has seen over the years are often left abandoned and vulnerable to re-trafficking. “One of the most heartbreaking cases we’ve had is a woman who has really complex needs and serious mental health issues like psychosis and a personality disorder,” Tomás says. The charity’s health workers saw her every day for two months, and arranged a room for her, but the woman ended up going back to sex trafficking. Tomás tells me the truth is many of the most vulnerable survivors find it easier to trust their abusers than to place their faith in the apparatus of a society that has shunned them.
‘I should’ve known something was off’
When Sam* left her home country for the UK at the end of 2017, she was in her mid-20s and filled with excitement about the life that awaited her on the other side of the planet. “I was just another young person, wanting to see more of the world,” she says over Zoom.
Sam decided to use a seemingly innocuous job portal to seek employment in London. “It was just an ordinary, standard platform where you can try and find work,” she remembers. Very quickly, a message arrived from a woman asking to interview her.
Sam was given an address and told to bring her passport with her. But upon arrival, the directions were changed, and she was instructed to wait at another address, where another employee was sent to pick her up. “I should’ve known something was off right there and then,” she now says.
A young woman approached her and led her into a housing block nearby. Upon entering one of the apartments, a man greeted her and immediately took away her passport on the pretext of confirming her identity, and that she had the right to work in the UK. He explained that the apartment was just a “temporary office”. As soon as the other woman went away and they were left alone, Sam says, “things got pretty chaotic, quite quickly”.
Over the course of the next week, Sam was raped by the man – who was 39 years old and running a sex trafficking operation from the apartment – and forced to have sex with multiple men. She later found out that it was her trafficker who had posed as a woman on the job portal, after she saw him post similar advertisements.
Though Sam was allowed to leave the apartment to return to her own accommodation, her trafficker was in constant contact with her and she was too scared to go to the police because he told her she could be arrested and deported for “being a prostitute”. He worked with another man, who would drive her to the hotels and houses of men who had paid to have sex with her. Each time, the money was handed over to the driver before he escorted her inside.
“I was so tired, I just kept telling him that I needed to sleep,” Sam recalls. But her trafficker wouldn’t relent. As the days passed and her fury and indignation grew, she began to document as much about her trafficker as she could. She secretly filmed him on her phone while he was dictating how she should speak to a prospective client, and also managed to capture footage of the apartment from which he worked. She hoped the footage would mean she would be believed if she ever got free of him. The videos later served as valuable evidence when she went to the police.
At the end of the week, when Sam heard someone passing by, she took her chance to escape. “If you don’t open the door, I’ll scream,” she told her trafficker. She managed to get away from him but it was months before she felt able to report what had happened to her to the authorities. Four years on, she is still struggling to get the support she needs for her recovery.
‘The victim library’
Sam was made destitute in the wake of her trafficking ordeal. Her visa had lapsed, and she ended up facing Home Office delays in confirming her status as a victim of human trafficking.
“Living without my human rights dehumanised me,” she explains. Her sense of agency was further diminished, she feels, through her stay at the London-based safe house that she was provided.
“I spent 19 to 20 months there, and that was incredibly challenging at times,” she says. “I had to face the restrictions that come with this living environment. It was a ‘sign in, sign out’ system, and you were only allowed to go out two nights per week,” she recalls.
She felt the sting of the contrast to her trafficker’s freedom every day, knowing he was building what she calls his “victim library”.
“I didn’t even have a key to my own front door, whilst he was using his key to open his door to victim after victim,” she says.
However, there were silver linings to her stay at the safe house. The operators helped to organise access to private music lessons, for which she was grateful. Having a space where she could nurture her creativity by escaping into music – one of her main passions – was invaluable in her recovery. “I could just get lost, and my worries couldn’t intrude there,” she muses.
This environment also gave her access to people who understood her situation, and allowed her to discuss parts of her case, which were complex and needed specialist guidance. There was also something comforting about living alongside a large number of other women on similar journeys.
Meanwhile, Sam keeps coming up against repeated refusals to grant her the support she needs. Every few weeks, in order to continue receiving the assistance she is entitled to under the RNA, Sam has to fill in the same forms clarifying her needs. In total, she has made 12 RNA applications over approximately 22 months, and her access to therapy has been halted four or five times in that period. Not knowing what lies ahead has caused her incessant anxiety. “I’m restricted in so many avenues here. I had asked to seek some study, but I wasn’t eligible because I didn’t have status [to remain in the country].”
The process of gaining leave to remain and to work was torturous. “The wait from application to receipt of my biometric residence permit card was so long that when it arrived, almost three months of the 12 they had granted were gone. That’s three months out of the short time given where I couldn’t do the one thing I was desperate for: support myself and rebuild my life,” she says.
Later, when she had been granted the right to work and applied successfully to begin a part-time job, the Home Office slashed the financial support they had been offering. This financial support was subsistence that was intended to aid the recovery of slavery survivors, and was not simply for someone to meet their essential needs.
“Their argument was that I’m now working and making more than £39.63 per week. But they weren’t thinking about the fact that the £39.63 was contributing to my ability to live independently and work towards recovery. So there I was, falling short,” Sam says.
When approached about Sam’s and Emily’s experiences, the Home Office stated that it was unable to comment on individual cases, noting: “We are committed to minimising disruption to victims’ lives by asking them to provide only the most crucial information we need.”
In addition, its Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean said, “Our processes ensure personalised support for confirmed victims focussing on individual recovery needs and informing a tailored move-on plan to help them transition out of our support and, as appropriate, back into the community.”
A bridge between survivors and the system
With a clearer understanding of long-term survivor needs coming to the fore in recent years, there has also been encouraging progress made to fill in the cracks in the anti-trafficking ecosystem. Since 2018, the anti-slavery charity Justice and Care has been teaming up directly with police to support survivors in rebuilding their lives, through a pilot scheme known as the Victim Navigator programme. The programme’s objective is to form a bridge between survivor care and the criminal justice system. Currently, there are 10 navigators scattered across the UK’s police forces, from Essex to West Yorkshire to Manchester, although the charity hopes to have three more hires by the spring of 2022.
“The main thrust is that the navigator is an individual embedded within the modern slavery teams of police forces located throughout the country,” says Debi Lloyd, a former detective who now works as Justice and Care’s coordinator of European operations. Upon her retirement from the police force, she realised that there was a gap in law enforcement’s understanding of how to treat potential victims. She joined the Victim Navigator network when it was in its infancy, determined to make a difference.
“The priority of the police is to apprehend offenders, carry out investigations and gather the evidence for trial. What we’re trying to do is ensure there is a friendly face that’s there for victims from the beginning of the journey, so they don’t feel so alone. The navigator will sit with police while they’re developing their intelligence collection plans, and talk about the cultural backgrounds of the victims that they may come across while carrying out the warrant, so they’re prepared. And the navigator accompanies them throughout this whole time.”
When the navigators know the cultural nuances and speak the same language as the victims, they can make a huge difference in helping the latter feel more comfortable and empowered to engage with the criminal justice process. It can be terrifying when the police raid a brothel, or the premises of some other illegal operation where vulnerable people have been put to work against their will, Lloyd says. The navigators are there to make sure that victims are supported from the very beginning – whether it is to give them time to get dressed, or to connect them with translators so that they are informed about what is going on, or to sort out emergency accommodation for them.
But the value and power of the navigators’ work is in the reassurance for the victims that they will be there for them for as long as they need – and this can be very long indeed, as the process of bringing a case to court can take years.
Lloyd says one of the key challenges for the victims is attending the trial as it can be intimidating for foreign nationals unfamiliar with the British justice system.
“There’s wigs, and cloaks, and there’s this sense of theatre about it. But if you’ve made somebody feel like they’re themselves again, they’ll be more accepting of how the system works, and be prepared to work with it.” Lloyd estimates that around 45 percent of victims referred to Justice and Care are British, with the remainder predominantly from Eastern Europe or Vietnam.
The programme is starting to see early successes. Recently, a survivor supported by Justice and Care made the decision to take the stand in court against her trafficker. “She was sexually exploited in her teens, and is now in her early 20s. She spent 12 hours giving evidence. The smile on her face [because] somebody was listening to her, and that she was able to deliver that story and be believed, was just amazing. And it goes to show that if you treat people with dignity and respect, then they feel confident enough to make choices that are best for them,” Lloyd says.
And with enough space and time, survivors can be the most energetic advocates for themselves. Sam says that she has been able to regain a lot of strength. She has found solace again in the things she used to enjoy before being trafficked, like playing musical instruments and building trusting relationships. “There are moments when my brain just goes blank, and I pick up the guitar, go into a room and just play music,” she says.
Her work in the anti-trafficking and modern slavery sector has also been a source of mental fortitude for her: “I was really proud of myself for getting an opportunity [at employment]. It made me see that I could do a lot more than I thought.” Going forward, she is preparing to face her trafficker at his trial. “Hopefully he’ll be prosecuted, we’ll get the outcome we want, and I can close this chapter of my life that cost me almost five years.”
Emily’s feelings are more ambivalent. Over the last year, we have stayed in touch, exchanging film recommendations from time to time. Her stoicism and sense of humour continue to astonish me. Though her life updates are cheery, they are also underlined by a mounting exasperation at the way her experiences and subsequent recovery have been handled by the government.
In a recent exchange of texts, she talked passionately about other women survivors who, bogged down by the byzantine regulations dictating how they should live, had reached out to her for advice and help. She has been heavily involved in the anti-trafficking sector herself on a voluntary basis, but the work is beginning to take its toll. “We’ve missed out on so much. I think we deserve to have a fresh start, because we have so much to offer, but are just never given the chance,” she says.
*Names changed to protect their identities.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.