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2020 (Narrative date)

There are an estimated 136,000 people living on conditions of modern slavery in the United Kingdom (Global Slavery Index 2018). According to the 2017 annual figures provided by the National Crime Agency, 5, 145 potential victims of modern slavery were referred through the National Referral Mechanism in 2017, of whom 2,454 were female, 2688 were male and 3 were transgender, with 41% of all referrals being children at the time of exploitation. People are subjected to slavery in the UK in the form of domestic servitude, labour exploitation, organ harvesting and sexual exploitation, with the largest number of potential victims originating from Albania, China, Vietnam and Nigeria. This data however does not consider the unknown numbers of victims that are not reported. 

Layla* came to the UK from Kenya after escaping religious strife. She had found a school in the UK who had agreed to admit her, however upon arrival she was taken to a small house and foced into care work. Traffickers took her wages to pay back the ‘debt’ incurred from getting her to the country. Layla was forced to work long hours, prevented from spending time outside and was not properly fed. After 3 years the ‘school’ was shut down, but her trafficker continued to exploit her. Layla was finally able to leave her situation after she was diagnosed with cancer in her trafficker’s name so that he could receive the assistance payments. Layla was arrested for fraud and while police initially assumed she was the criminal, her lawyer realised she had been trafficked and helped her.

I came to the UK from Kenya in my twenties, after escaping a murderous religious sect called the Mungiki. 

They’ve been called Kenya’s version of the mafia and those that defect, betray the trust of the sect, or simply refuse recruitment are killed and often dismembered.

Fearing for my life, I had to escape. It took me two years to find a way out and, in 2009, I ultimately settled on the plan that I would become a student at a UK college.

 After some research at a cyber café, I found a school that seemed okay. The institution looked trustworthy and they advertised a computer programming course online. There was no interview, but they asked me for enrolment fees, which felt like a lot of money. 

It didn’t matter hugely to me if it wasn’t the best school. My priority was leaving behind the dangerous environment I was living in. I flew to the UK taking only one suitcase, so as not to rouse suspicion. At first, I was relieved I had a visa, an opportunity to learn, and that I would not have to return any time soon. For the first time in a long time, I felt safe.

I was met at the airport and escorted to my ‘school’, but it wasn’t what was promised at all. 

It had a different address to the one listed on my admission letters. Instead of a college, it was a small house that I shared with other women. We all seemed suspicious of each other. 

Instead of receiving an education, I was forced to work for a care agency that took all my wages. They said this was so they could pay for my visa and keep me here legally. I didn’t know it at the time, but traffickers often keep people in ‘bonded debt’ – like I was – claiming that you will eventually get wages after a never ending bogus sum is ‘paid off’.

In reality, there is no debt but victims are tricked into working inhumane hours, in the same conditions, for years. 

I lived in their accommodation and was driven both to and from work so there was no chance of escape. An average day would start at 5am. I worked around the clock: as soon as I finished my morning’s labour, I was escorted to my afternoon shift. From there I would be taken to my night shift before I went to bed and repeated the same routine again the next day.

All my days were spent indoors, either at work or in the house. Years later, I’m still taking vitamin D tablets as my levels have never fully recovered. I also struggle to spend long in the sun as I get heat stroke easily.

The accommodation only gave us microwaved noodles. It’s what we lived on. At the time it didn’t hit me that this wasn’t normal. I was just so relieved to be away from the sect that this new routine didn’t strike me as what it actually was – trafficking.

I felt lonely and isolated but it wasn’t a new feeling to me; I thought it was just how life was meant to be.

After three years, the ‘school’ shut down and the person in charge of my visa said he would not help me renew it. The trafficker told me he had found me more work, so I could keep up with my ‘payments’. I felt trapped, like a slave. But I didn’t know who to approach for help. 

My experiences in Kenya had shaped my view of police as corrupt and ruthless officials and I had little trust in their UK counterparts. 

The whole time I was working, my trafficker was doing nothing to secure my immigration status. In fact, he was claiming benefits I was entitled to – after I’d been diagnosed with cancer – in his name to keep the payments for himself. It was this fraudulent activity that saw me get arrested. 

The police initially assumed I was a criminal rather than a victim. They claimed I was part of a criminal ring, controlling people and money. They were not helpful; one actually said he did not believe I was Kenyan, but I was part of a ‘Nigerian scam’, lying about my cancer to get my hands on medicine to sell in Africa. 

During the interrogation, my lawyer thankfully realised I had been trafficked. However, without strong legal help, I would have been at risk of deportation. It’s an odd experience fighting to clear your name through a criminal case on one hand, and trying to be declared as an asylum seeker on the other. 

It was only after checking my accounts (and how empty they were) that the police later realised I had nothing to do with the fraudulent scheme. Despite what I told them, it took a long time for them to come to this conclusion. Investigations had to be carried out while I was kept in a safe house. A few days after my first asylum screening interview, I got a letter from National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the system by which victims of modern slavery are identified and provided with support – saying I had been flagged as a potential victim of trafficking. I was told I had 45 days to recover and then a final ‘conclusive’ decision would be made. Depending on the outcome, I would be deported or allowed to stay.  

I didn’t understand what they meant, and I had to do my own research in order to grasp my own case. In my mind, trafficking meant sex trafficking and I knew I hadn’t experienced that.

‘Trafficking’ is usually portrayed in the most extreme and violent ways by the media, or politicians. But my experience shows that exploitation can be seriously distressing and have a lifelong impact, even if the abuse doesn’t look the same as it does in the headlines.

I was a victim of ‘labour trafficking’, which is a form of modern-day slavery, in which a person is forced to work for a tiny sum of money, if any.

At the time, I didn’t feel like my case was ‘serious’ enough because I had a job, even if I had no freedom and wasn’t paid enough to live properly. It is only with hindsight I can see I was being brainwashed by skilled manipulators. I was told by those controlling me that I would only be safe from deportation if I complied with their demands. 

From speaking to others who have been trafficked, and from my own experience, I know there is a lot of shame admitting you have been forced into modern-day slavery. So many people assume that victims of trafficking aren’t clever and fall into easy traps, but anyone can be vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how well educated you are. 

You think you’re smart? Traffickers are smarter. 

No one wants to leave their homes and family. I am alone, but I needed to come here for my safety. The traffickers knew this and reeled me in because of it. 

I have also faced comments from people who have heard my story, like: ‘How can you have been trafficked, you came to the UK on a plane?’

What I have learnt is that everyone’s experience of being trafficked is different, and mine is valid, even if I didn’t know it was happening to me at the time. 

Exploitation is so common in British society and so many people are unaware that they are going through it. I want there to be better support in place for those that have been trafficked. 

Last year, 1,256 potential victims were held in prison-like settings as ‘immigration detainees’. And since 2016, as many as 1,091 potential victims of slavery were discovered by authorities but never referred for support. 

Authorities must recognise rather than stigmatise exploited people and refer them for support. This means taking time to explain details of the NRM to exploited people even when they may not immediately understand they have been ‘trafficked’. 

While I can now talk about being exploited in the UK, I still find it hard to talk about what it was like in Kenya being subject to physical, mental and emotional abuse. 

One thing I know for certain is that I don’t want to be called a victim. For all I have been through, I am a survivor.

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