UK children continue to be subjected to sex trafficking within the country. Children in the care system and unaccompanied migrant children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. The United Kingdom remains a significant destination for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour. The latest government statistics derived from the UK National Referral Mechanism in 2014 reveal 2,340 potential victims of trafficking from 96 countries of origin, of whom 61 percent were female and 29 percent were children. At least one child a day is trafficked into Britain according the to the Human Trafficking Foundation, with children forced to work in the sex industry, domestic service, cannabis cultivation or as criminal on the streets. Child victims of human trafficking primarily originate from Romania, Vietnam, Nigeria, and from within the UK itself.
Sarah was 10 years old when she began buying illegal cigarettes and alcohol from a gang in the UK, often not having to pay because they were her 'friends'. After 2 years, the gang told Sarah that she had a £75,000 debt that she would have to pay for by transporting drugs and providing sexual services. Despite being in the care system, at school and having a social worker, it wasn't until a police officer looked further in to Sarah's case that she was rescued from her situation. Sarah talks about the system failures that led to her trafficking.
From the age of 10 to 12 I was groomed by a gang in the UK. They befriended me and seemed to really care for me. This was something that I was not experiencing anywhere else. I was a child in foster care form the age of 3 and had been moved multiple times to different foster homes. Each time with foster carers who should have, but didn’t care for me. Because of how alone and vulnerable I was, I became their next prey. The gang owned a disused shop from which they illegally sold cheap cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. I started buying the cigarettes from them and then also alcohol. At times I didn’t have to pay because I was a friend to them. That is where my debt bondage began.
I saw them as people who cared about me when I was sad. They would bring me gifts to cheer me up, which mainly consisted of drugs they had introduced me to. That’s when my dependency began. At a time where I had no love, support or community, they provided it, something which I craved. For two years they were the nicest, smiliest,, genuine friends and family that I had. But when I was 12, I was called to the shop but this time there were not smiles or no friendly faced, but locked jaws and angry ones. I was told I owed them a debt for all of the items that they had given me for free and all of the gifts. And over the time they have increased that debt whenever they felt necessary. £75,000 was the amount that I owed. No child of 12 can kind that kind of money. When I told them I couldn’t pay them that kind of cash they showed me a number of photos they had of my family and my loved ones going about their everyday lives, oblivious that they were being watched.
They said if I didn’t pay them, pay them back in the way that they wanted, that I would be shot. They told me that I belonged to them and until my debt was cleared, I had to work for them. The first two weeks I carried large quantities of drugs to various locations. As a child this terrified me, so after two weeks I refused to do it again. They got extremely violent and held me at gunpoint, telling me that they would now sell my body every day until that debt was paid, and if I told the police it would be me being sent to prison for committing that crime and they would also give police evidence that I was dealing drugs. My childhood was over.
I was sold everyday to many different men. I would have a minimum of seven clients a day but that would usually go up to around 12 to 16. Throughout those years I was completely overlooked. I was in a school, I had a social worker, I had foster carers, I was known to the police but not one of them asked questions or seemed to care about what was right in front of them. Because of what I was forced to do I became a very angry and rebellious teenager, getting in a lot of trouble all of the time. But nobody wanted to find out why, no one cared as to why a 14 year old was seen working on the streets at 2am or why a 15 years old was going in to hotel rooms with older men, why a child was barely in school or when she was exhausted. Because of the continual system failures it took me seven years to be seen. Seven years of torture, control and hell.
Than should not have been the case. My trafficking gang had complete control over my life they knew, and it dictated where I was every moment of the day. There was no time off, even while on my year 8 school trip to France, my traffickers had arranged for me to still work overnight while I was there. Yet still nobody noticed me. Every professional failed me. Thankfully I was rescued 4 years ago by one police officer that looked past the surface enough to see what was really happening. I was fortunate enough to be taken to a safe house and then be granted my positive conclusive grounds. Which for a British survivor is not easy to obtain.
The last 4 years have been a roller coaster of a journey as trafficking is something that I will be recovering from the rest of my life. Why is why I’m extremely fortunate that I was supported by Snowdrop. They provide long term support to survivors and without their support I would not be here today. I cannot begin to tell you the change and impact they have had on my life and my future. For once I was seen, heard, held and protected. Something I didn’t have with many of the other trafficking support services provided. There seemed to be a pattern throughout my life up until Snowdrop. Two years ago system failure, even judicial failure. I had a court case and was extremely close to obtaining lengthy convictions until one of my perpetrators died and they closed my whole entire case. Failed and deserted again. Throughout my entire childhood and the first part of my freedom and recovery was system failures. If eyes were opened and questions were asked, then I wouldn’t have had my childhood stolen by the most poisonous of men and now living with the lifelong effects of those seven years that should never have been.
This narrative was recorded at Trust Conference, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s flagship event. Trust Conference is committed to finding real solutions to fight slavery, empower women, and advance human rights worldwide. The annual event convenes global corporations, lawyers, government representatives, and pioneers at the forefront of the fight for human rights.