Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

'Every moment you were terrified': Life as a victim of child trafficking

Standing outside a hotel in Hove, it was probably almost a blink and miss it moment. Children, already terrified and alone in an unknown country, snatched from the street and bundled in cars.

Taken by gangs to be trafficked, these youngsters had travelled to our shores for the chance of a better life – one they are almost certainly now never going to get.

The children in question were asylum-seekers, the hotel was run by the Home Office – and the source of this account a whistleblower working for a Home Office contractor.

Although the government initially said ‘nothing like that’ had been reported, Home Office minister Lord Murray of Blidworth has since confirmed that the reports are now under investigation.

Since July 2021, 4,600 children have been accommodated in hotels since they were opened – and since then, 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking youngsters have gone missing.

The fear is many of these vulnerable children are preyed upon by child trafficking gangs, who know that once taken, they will be hard to trace.

Being taken from your family as a child, only to be sold for sex work, is something that Tracy* is tragically all too familiar with.

When she was 15, she remembers being forced through the airport from Spain to England. Her trafficker made Tracy wear sunglasses, so no-one could see her eyes, she also recalls.

It was the second flight she had ever taken and she was terrified. Desperate for someone to step in and rescue her, she raised her glasses and with tears in her eyes, silently mouthed ‘help me’ to an airport official.

‘I just wanted someone to say, “Are you all right? Are you okay?”,’ she says. ‘I was young. I wanted her to ask who was travelling with me. I was desperate for her help.’

But the official missed her cry for help, and Tracy was forced to risk her life and flee.

Tracy’s story is a harrowing one. Now in her thirties, she was just nine when a relative sold her from Nigeria into a trafficking gang. She was taken to Italy and then Spain, where she was forced into sex work on city streets, suffering untold violence and abuse. It wasn’t until she was taken to London for more ‘work’ that she was able to break free from her captor at King’s Cross. Running through the unknown city streets, she was petrified.

‘I went underground. If they catch you, and there is a chance they will catch you, [they will] re-traffic you, shoot you or stab you to death,’ Tracey says, her voice breaking. ‘So when you run, you are risking your life.’

The terror she speaks of is something that possibly hundreds of refugee children are now feeling, having been taken from the shores they risked their life to get to in search of a better life.

Tracy says that she feels for the children being abducted soon after seeking solace on UK shores, who will be scared and lonely in a foreign land.

Remembering her enslavement, she says: ‘Every moment you were terrified. You didn’t know what was going to happen in the next second.

‘When I was first trafficked, I was in a country where I don’t speak the language. It was terrifying. You want to ask for help but you don’t know how.

‘I was the youngest among them all, and even if I was able to ask for help, I couldn’t, because the girls I worked with would snitch on you. The traffickers turned us against each other.

‘It was just survival.’

It has been reported that the Home Office ignored warnings over the risks facing young asylum seekers who arrive here alone. According to Dr Patricia Hynes, professor of social justice at Sheffield Hallam University, cases such as this are looked at by the authorities as an immigration problem, rather than a child protection one.

‘Children who arrive into the UK should be safeguarded,’ says Dr Hynes. ‘Placing children in unregulated hotels removes essential oversight of these children and is not in accordance with The Children Act 1989 and any associated ethical practices. The use of hotels was meant to be an emergency measure, but this has now been going on for at least 18 months.

‘Imagine if your own child went missing – imagine the fears that would conjure up. These children and young people should be treated equally, with the same regard, and not as somehow less deserving than any other child.’

Too terrified to seek help from the authorities, Tracy recalls how she ended up sleeping rough, in churches and mosques.

Then the trauma hit. She suffered from splitting headaches and endless nights of insomnia and suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t until the pain forced her into Accident and Emergency that she got help.

‘When I escaped, I couldn’t tell people what my situation was,’ she says. ‘I lived a double life. I showed a happy face, but inside, I wasn’t fine. And I couldn’t share how I was feeling because I couldn’t trust anyone.

‘The traffickers made me believe that they worked with the police, with doctors, with lawyers. The organisation was very big. You never know who might be a member of that organisation and that fear stops you from getting help. I still don’t trust people fully.

‘After you escape, people around you say that you are free. That you can move on and that everything is going to be fine. I still don’t feel like it’s going to be fine.

‘Two decades on, I still struggle because of all I have lost. I missed my education, which is so important. I find things really tough and I get mad at life because so much was taken away from me. Things that can’t be replaced.’

Trafficking is a growing problem, according to the latest figures. In 2021, more children than ever before identified as potential victims of modern slavery. In total, 5,468 potential victims were referred to the Home Office, marking a 9% increase on the previous year.

These children and young people should be treated equally, with the same regard, and not as somehow less deserving than any other child

Lauren Saunders, head of policy at anti-slavery charity Unseen, warns that young people are being forced into begging, car washing, drug trafficking and factory work across the UK – as well as sex work. 

She says the youngest victim she had worked with was just six years old. He was trafficked from Nigeria and spent ten years cooking and cleaning for a family in the UK, before he was thrown out.

‘Exploitation can lead to physical injuries and massive emotional effects,’ says Lauren. ‘Someone may experience flashbacks for a really long period of time afterwards, poor mental health, suicidal ideation and/or self harm. They may present as very weak or vulnerable or seem very underdeveloped for their age.’

Lauren advises that we all become more suspicious about what we see around us.

‘A lot of modern slavery goes on hidden and under the radar,’ she says. ‘If there’s a house on your street where lots of people come and go, but they don’t appear to live there, that is an indication that something might be happening. If there’s an abandoned building that people keep visiting, that’s another indication.

‘If you see people in a garden or through the windows, but you never see them come out, or if you are maybe a delivery person or going to someone’s address, you may see things that other people don’t see.’

She advises a call to the Modern Slavery Helpline, which is staffed by experts who can give advice.

Since it was set up in 2017, the charity Their Voice, which supports trafficked and enslaved people, has seen requests for help more than double. Last year demand for its services outstripped resources available.

A spokesperson for Their Voice says: ‘The news of children missing from Home Office hotels along the south coast is a sad reality of how the systems in place are failing and need reform. Some of the most vulnerable in society are being preyed upon by criminal gangs in the UK.’ 

Barnardo’s CEO Lynn Perry agrees.

‘We are deeply concerned that children seeking asylum in the UK continue to go missing from temporary accommodation,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘The latest figures are just the tip of the iceberg, with many more children seeking sanctuary in this country at risk of trafficking and exploitation.

‘The current safeguards in place to stop children from getting caught up in such exploitative situations are extremely limited. Children as young as ten have been placed alone in these hotels with no access to help and advice, mental health support, and little access to healthcare.

‘We urge the government to take immediate action to identify any children who have gone missing and to protect all those who remain in temporary accommodation.’  

For Tracy, after escaping her captors, she was referred to Ella’s, a charity that supports women recovering from trafficking.

Emily Chalke, co-director at Ella’s, says: ‘Child trafficking and exploitation is an abhorrent crime. It can be hard to believe that it takes place, but it does. Often, it’s perpetrated by those with power who should be there to protect young people, not exploit them.

‘For so many of the survivors we work with at Ella’s, their trauma began at a young age. It’s devastating to read reports of young asylum seekers falling through gaps in the system, left vulnerable to danger. These children and all children must be protected. No human being is illegal, and every life is precious.’

Ella’s helped Tracy rebuild her life – she has children of her own now and runs a business. But the experience has left her bereft for a childhood unlived.

No human being is illegal, and every life is precious

‘When exploitation happens to you as a child, you will always be in that situation,’ says Tracy. ‘You’re always reminded of the past. There’s no way around it. You just have to find a way to cope.

‘Even though you are free, you can never be free.’

If you suspect modern slavery or human trafficking, contact 08000 121 700 or visit the Modern Slavery Helpline website.

*Tracy’s name has been changed

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