Hannah and her boyfriend had been together for a few months when he asked her to stay at his house in the Italian countryside, across the border from her home in Albania. Until then he had been charming and respectful, and she had introduced him to her family.
But his behaviour became erratic. They argued and he would grow violent. Once, he slapped and punched her, then offered her dinner a few hours later. She ate the food and fell into a deep sleep.
When she woke up she was locked in a small room in London. The man she had been in love with explained that she was going to be taken to meet other men. She was to do exactly what they asked. “If I didn’t he would kill my family,” she says, now in a safe location outside London. Hannah is not her real name. “He said he would set me on fire and send the video to my mother. He would take my sister and make her do the work instead.”
Hannah doesn’t know how long she was forced to work as a prostitute, being shuttled around the capital to meet men with strange accents, before she spied her opportunity to escape.
Another man, who’d been assigned to guard her, came back drunk. He put some stilettos on the table and told her to get dressed. She refused, and he beat her around the head with his belt.
“I was so angry. I wanted to kill him. I picked up the stiletto heel and smashed it down on his head with all my might. The door was open so I ran out and down the stairs, praying the front door wasn’t locked. I knew he’d kill me if he caught me. Then I kept running.” At last she was found.
“Victims of this crime are relentlessly abused and repeatedly raped,” says Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. “Their dignity is denied and freedom taken. This isn’t a crime that is hidden and impossible to detect — it is happening before our eyes. It’s a huge problem, horrifying in its inhumanity, but it is one that we can all work to eradicate.”
In recent weeks The Independent’s special investigation into modern slavery has been highlighting the plight of victims and the work being done to fight the crime in the capital. There are signs things are starting to improve. The Home Office has announced reforms to the National Referral Mechanism, and rates of crime reporting are rising.
For Hannah, however, the investigation is about more than statistics. With the help of the Salvation Army and Women’s Aid, she is rebuilding her life. At first she couldn’t sleep, plagued by nightmares. If she sees someone watching her, she sometimes still finds herself running away. It’s difficult for her to trust people.
At New Year she sent her family a letter. She hasn’t had any response. But she is making progress. She plans to enrol in college, and find a job that uses her excellent English.
“I don’t want people to look at me and feel pity,” she says. “For me, it’s like a light. This has passed, and I’m still alive. I thank God and the universe. He gave me this lesson, and I want to help prevent this happening to someone else.”
If you think you or someone you know might be a victim of modern slavery and in need of assistance, please call The Salvation Army’s confidential 24/7 referral helpline on 0300 3038151.
Last year about 48 per cent of victims of modern slavery referred to the Salvation Army had been sexually exploited. Each had a different story to tell, but tragically Hannah’s is typical of the women from Albania.
That said, there is no “typical” victim of sexual exploitation. Last year we supported people from more than 90 different countries including the UK, of all ages and backgrounds. Some are teenagers forced into risking a seemingly legitimate job offer far from home to escape poverty. Others are successful businesspeople, also tricked by lies into a situation they can’t escape from.
Organised criminal networks and demand for sex seem to have created the perfect storm for modern slavery. Sex trafficking is often more difficult to spot than labour exploitation, where victims can be literally in front of us painting our nails or washing our cars. However, there can be tell-tale signs, such as lots of visitors to one house at odd times. It’s important to report suspicions immediately because some “pop-up brothels” can come and go in a couple of weeks.
People who choose to pay for sex should consider the human impact. Don’t assume the women and men providing these services are there of their own free will. So often this isn’t the case, and some victims tell us they were helped to escape by a “customer” who realised something was wrong and was horrified to learn of their exploitation.
Increasingly we are witnessing the impact of intelligence-led police efforts in combating this crime. We are heartened to see police operations where action is taken to ensure victims are not criminalised but given immediate access to the support they so desperately need. The Salvation Army is poised to take victims to a place of safety at any time and from anywhere in England and Wales because this can be when they are most vulnerable.
The police need intelligence to act. Let’s not mind our own business, but make it our business to report something which doesn’t look right.