LITTLE Aisha* was just 13 years old when she was forced into domestic slavery – cleaning a house for backbreaking hours and crammed into a tiny storage cupboard at night.
Her story is just one example of the nightmare of forced labour in Britain, which stretches from the sweatshops of Leicester to brothels staffed with trafficked women.
Sickeningly, such cases are far from rare. A Home Office report in 2014 estimated there were between 10,000-13,000 victims of slavery in the UK – the 2018 Global Slavery Index puts the true figure closer to 136,000.
Last year, The Sun launched its Stamp Out Slavery campaign, run in conjunction with Co-op, to help victims illegally forced to work in car washes, nail salons and farms all over the UK.
And since the outbreak of the pandemic, the dangers they face have only worsened, as social distancing makes oversight of cases more difficult than ever.
The Sophie Hayes Foundation (SHF), a UK charity which helps female survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery, has supported some of Britain's most vulnerable women during the pandemic.
"Behind closed doors abusers continue to abuse and move victims around the country to maximise profits," says the charity's CEO Red Godfrey-Sagoo.
"The victims don’t have the luxury of furlough, they are forced to continue the work they have been exploited for, whilst carrying the risk of being infected and infecting others.
"Surviving the pandemic is only half the battle, the other half is surviving their abusers."
Here, two women share their harrowing experiences as survivors of modern slavery living in Britain throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Kept in a broom cupboard and worked to the bone
Aisha and her 15-year-old sister were brought to the UK to be forced into unpaid domestic work and subjected to awful living conditions – including sleeping on bunk beds in a broom cupboard.
She's now 30, but she was just 13 years old when her nightmare began in the early 2000s.
Having grown up in Nigeria, they were excited to fly to London, where they were told they'd be with their dad and his girlfriend, who had moved to the UK.
The reality was worse than they ever could have imagined.
As they landed in Britain, a stranger they met on the plane contacted a number Aisha and her sister had been given in Nigeria.
They were directed to get a taxi to a house where a lady would meet them – but as soon as they arrived, things were amiss.
"We were told to stay in a storage cupboard as our beds were not ready," Aisha says.
Terrible living conditions are common for victims of modern slavery.
In 2017, cops were shocked to find a Polish victim being forced to live in a squalid loft in Nottingham after he'd been made to work 20-hour days making greeting cards.
With no sign of their father, the woman keeping Aisha made the young girls start working the next day.
"We had to clean the house from top to bottom," she says.
"She said if we were good girls then we should clean. There were four other children in the house, and no one really spoke to us, they treated us so bad."
The only money they were given at the house was for transport tickets to and from school, and they had to provide proof that that's how they'd spent the money.
"After one year, we were moved to another house in Kent and made to look after another woman’s family and the husband was very inappropriate with me," Aisha says.
"He kept touching me and made me feel so uncomfortable. We were punished if we did not clean up the mess.
The pandemic has limited the help and support that I get because you can’t go out
"Sometimes the chores were so difficult my sister would help me so that I did not get punished."
All the while, the girls kept asking to speak to their dad, but they were repeatedly told he'd be in touch soon.
They did eventually speak to a man claiming to be their father on the phone, but Aisha wasn't convinced it was really him.
Desperate to escape
One day, when they had been sent to the shop for supplies, Aisha's sister decided they needed to get away.
Nigerian victims of human trafficking have been known to be enslaved for incredible amounts of time in the UK – one couple, Emmanuel and Antan Edet, brought a 13-year-old boy to Britain and enslaved him for 24 years.
Aisha and her sister got on a bus and travelled to a school friend's house where they contacted the lady from the first home they'd been put to work in.
They told her the new household's man was inappropriate with them and they couldn't live there anymore. But the woman they'd originally worked for was enraged.
"She was angry with us and screamed that we needed to go back, but we just did not want to go back to that awful place.
"She said she would lose her money and that they would go to the police."
With nowhere else to go, they stayed at Aisha's friend's house and got help from a local church.
They volunteered with the pastor, who helped them find accommodation for a while, but it soon became difficult to get more support.
Although they're now in a safehouse and being helped by the Sophie Hayes Foundation, life became much harder during the pandemic.
"The pandemic has limited the help and support that I get because you can’t go out," Aisha says.
"It has challenged my freedom and I have spent a lot of time locked away. It has put me back into a place where I feel vulnerable and not safe.
"My caseworker has referred me back to therapy."
And, heartbreakingly, Aisha says what happened to her and her sister isn't uncommon.
"I was in a safehouse and I saw people there that were on the same street as me back when I was first trafficked here and I didn’t realise that there were other people in the same situation as me and my sister," she says.
"It could be happening on your doorstep. The story needs to change so that there is more help for others."
Ordered to hide bruises and keep quiet
Neepa* was forced to move from Bangladesh to the UK by her family – it was culturally unacceptable for her to have any say in the matter.
She was made to live with her half-brother and, around the age of 16, Neepa started being sexually exploited by him in 2008.
The horrific abuse at the hands of her half-brother and his wife – classified as a case of sexual slavery – went on for six agonising years.
"I felt isolated and they were very violent to me," Neepa says.
I felt isolated and they were very violent to me. My family made me feel that the outside world was against me
"I started to think it was normal and my sister said it was fine and advised me to be quiet. I tried contacting my school and my family made me feel that the outside world was against me.
"In 2009, a lady from school visited me and asked about my life.
"I showed her my bruises and was told that I shouldn’t show them to anyone else.
"She was an Asian woman and no one from the school could confirm who she was when I asked them later on."
Choked and savagely silenced
Neepa was worried how her mum and brother back home would be treated if she complained to anyone about what was happening to her in the UK.
She feared how powerful her father's side of her family was, and lived in dismal circumstances for years.
"I had no social life, living conditions weren’t good for me," Neepa says.
She was choked by her half-brother and was forbidden from questioning any of his decisions in controlling her life, like forbidding her from having friends.
But one day, she too reached a breaking point.
Lockdown has made the system worse for me and others like me
"I had to leave because they wanted me to get married as a business transaction and I felt humiliated," Neepa says.
"The beatings made me feel like I wasn’t a human being.
"My dignity was taken from me – a woman is a precious gift, she brings forth new life. Why would someone want to disrespect the person that brings life into this world?"
Falling through the cracks of the system
In 2014, after her first year of college, Neepa contacted the police.
"I was getting beaten so much and didn’t want to get married to someone I didn’t know," she says.
"I didn’t have any paperwork, so things got difficult as my half-brother’s family is a powerful one and they have a lot of power back home."
She managed to take refuge in a safehouse as a victim of modern slavery, but she felt anxious, and Neepa feels she was let down by support networks during the pandemic.
"Lockdown has made the system worse for me and others like me," she says.
"You are left out and have to manage being away from everyone and everything. No financial stability – where is my right in lockdown?
"It makes you feel like the system is abusing you, I don’t have the right support to get me to where I need to be.
It is easy to see why so many turn to sex and drugs
"I don’t get to decide where I live."
Neepa also wants the UK to allow survivors of human trafficking the right to be able to earn a living – currently, undocumented work is an offence, a fact which traffickers use to maintain control over fearful victims of modern slavery.
Throughout lockdown, she was trying to make ends meet on just £35 a week given to her by the state.
"It doesn’t go far but you have to survive on that – it is such a struggle," she says.
"We need to be encouraged to do better, it is easy to see why so many turn to sex and drugs, you always get approached by girls who tell you to go into prostitution and how much money you can earn.
"I could not do any course as I don’t have the right paperwork that would allow me access."
Many women trafficked into sexual slavery have their passport taken from them by their captors and get them hooked on drugs to foster further dependency on the gang.
That's exactly what happened to Helena, a Romanian woman lured to Britain and then forced to have sex to pay off her "debt" to her traffickers.
Deadly overdose attempt
To make matters worse, the Home Office has delayed making a decision in Neepa's case.
With so much uncertainty, Neepa felt she couldn't go on any longer.
"I had to think on a daily basis about whether I would survive," Neepa says.
"I trusted people but they weren’t trustworthy, I feared constant beatings and all that bad treatment and with the delay it makes me feel the same pain.
"I took an overdose and could not go to the doctors. I was treated at home and those memories come back, you feel so helpless."
Despite the terrible difficulties she's had to deal with, Neepa says the Sophie Hayes Foundation is helping her regain hope through supporting her education.
"I know I can get to a better place and SHF is helping me to make a change in my life," Neepa says.
Tragically, cases like Aisha and Neepa's are commonplace in the UK.
And since coronavirus, anti-slavery organisations say their job has become even harder.
“If you’re a case worker who is working with a number of survivors, their options to go and meet with their client, the person they’re helping, will become severely limited," says Ryna Sherazi, from Anti-Slavery International.
“It becomes a very isolating experience for someone who’s already been isolated by their trafficker on purpose.”
Between January and March this year, 2,871 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the Government's framework for identifying cases of modern slavery.
Of those referred, nearly half (43 per cent) were children.
The full 2,871 figure is a 14 per cent decrease from the previous quarter, but a 33 per cent increase from the same quarter in 2019.
Counterintuitively, the numbers going down are a worrying sign for anti-slavery organisations.
"Seeing the figures reduced effectively tells us there’s potentially a bigger problem in terms of people getting help, rather then there being an actual true reduction in modern slavery," Ryna explains.
What are the signs of modern slavery?
It’s likely that you often see people in modern slavery. Someone in slavery might:
- appear to be under the control of someone else and be reluctant to interact with others
- not have personal identification on them
- have few personal belongings, wear the same clothes every day or wear unsuitable clothes for work
- not be able to move around freely
- be reluctant to talk to strangers or the authorities
- appear frightened, withdrawn, or show signs of physical or psychological abuse
- dropped off and collected for work always in the same way, especially at unusual times, i.e. very early or late at night.
If you suspect someone is in modern slavery, you can:
- Call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or fill out an online form.
- Contact the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to report concerns about the mistreatment of workers on 0800 432 0804, or by email [email protected]
- Contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111
- Contact the Police
- Contact Anti-Slavery International or other specialist anti-slavery organisations.
Ryna adds that traffickers often take away their victims' identifying documents which can make it harder to get help.
So-called "hostile environment" immigration policies mean that victims of human trafficking have been treated as illegal immigrants by the state.
Some victims of modern slavery have therefore been jailed and others have faced deportation while fearing they'd be killed by their traffickers in their home countries.
“If you are exploited as a victim of human trafficking, of modern slavery, then you must be treated by Britain, by our authorities, as getting the protection and support that you need as a victim first, and not as an immigration crime," Ryna says.
"We’re hopeful that the Government can be pragmatic about this and put those victims first. Ultimately, that’s what we’re calling for.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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