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.
Y was trafficked from Nigeria to the United Kingdom at five years old. She was forced to clean, prevented from leaving the house or going to school and made to look after the family’s baby. Y was physically, emotionally and mentally abused by the family that had bought her. When she was 11, the family moved back to Nigeria and sold Y to their friend. She remained in the UK and was forced to work long hours doing housework. When she was 14, she was also forced to make cakes for the woman to sell and make money. She finally ran away and went to live with a foster family while the police and social services worked on her case.
I was born in Nigeria. I don’t know where – I can’t remember and nobody told me. I can’t remember anything about life in Nigeria. I don’t know who my parents are or whether I have any brothers or sisters. No one has ever told me about my family. I only know my date of birth because I found it written down in the house where I grew up in England.
The first things I remember all happened in the United Kingdom. I lived with a family in London. The family was made up of a woman, her husband, their daughter and their son. There was also a boy who I believe was a cousin of the mother. He didn’t live with us the whole time, but he did live in the family for long periods of time.
When I was little I called the adults mum and dad and thought I was their child, but they treated me differently to their daughter and from the brother when he was born. They went to school, but I wasn’t allowed. They smacked me and beat me but they didn’t do the same to the other children. I had to do work around the house which the other children didn’t. I couldn’t ask them why they treated me differently, in my culture it’s rude to question adults and you just have to accept what they say.
Nobody explained to me why I was treated differently. Nobody came out and told me that I wasn’t their child. When I was a little girl they made it very clear that I was different from their family, but I didn’t really understand why as this was the only life I could remember.
The first memories I have from living with the family are the mother staying at home with me during the daytime. She was a big woman, huge, I was terrified of her. I think I was five years old when I started living with them because I remember the daughter going to school and we were roughly the same age.
I didn’t ask why she went to school and I didn’t because it was not the sort of house where a little girl could ask questions. I had to do what I was told or I would be beaten. The other children had toys and books of their own but I didn’t have any. I was allowed to read their books, and I could play with other children’s toys when I had the time, but I had no toys and books of my own.
'THE BABY AND I FORMED A BOND'
I had to stay at home most of the time, whether or not the rest of the family were there. Although the mother was at home when I first lived there, not long afterwards she started going back to work and I would be left at home in the house. I think I was about six or seven when the brother was born. I remember when he was old enough to sit up by himself or crawl. The mother went back to work and left the baby at home with me. I had to look after him all day.
On a normal day I would have to get up early in the morning, get the school things ready and make breakfast. I didn’t have my own bed but I shared the girl’s bed and the three of us children shared a room together. I got up in the morning while they were sleeping and I would tidy up the room, get their things together and make breakfast.
I didn’t like my ‘sister’; she was a bully and made my life miserable. She used to put her legs out to try and trip me up when I was working and she told me to step over them, she would never move for me and I was too scared to answer her back in case the ‘mother’ heard.
After the adults went to work and the children went to school I was left at home with the baby all day. I had to feed him, change his nappies, play with him and get him to sleep when he cried. I also had to do cleaning around the house - the mother would make a list of things she wanted me to do.
It was really hard and I wasn’t always sure what I was supposed to do, but in this family I had to learn fast and mistakes were always punished. I did feel happy during some of these times though. The baby and I formed a bond and I often wonder what happened to him and what he looks like now. I actually started to like working with children.
ON HER LIMITED EDUCATION
'Some days the mother would teach me to read using her daughter’s books. She wanted me to know how to speak English and wouldn’t let us speak Yoruba in the house.
'I don’t know why she taught me to read and write but she also taught me how to count and tell the time, how to read numbers and do basic adding up.
'Other than that I didn’t get an education.'
'THINGS PEOPLE TAKE FOR GRANTED WERE A BIG DEAL FOR ME'
I wasn’t able to go outside during the day. I didn’t have a key and I didn’t ask for a key because I didn’t ask for anything. I wasn’t allowed out of the house except with the mother or her cousins when they came to visit. I remember how excited it used to make me feel when I was able to leave the house and go outside - things that many people can take for granted like going to the shops or going to the park was a big deal for me.
Sometimes while I was working and the children were watching TV I saw or heard it, or sometimes I watched it when she was not around. I used to love watching TV when I had the house to myself. I always knew what time to turn it off so no one would know. One day I heard the ‘mother’ close the car door - she was early. I panicked and turned off the television and looked busy. When she got into the house, I must have looked guilty, she walked over to the TV and put her hand down the back – she felt that it was warm. I got a really bad beating that day.
In the evenings the mother would cook and I would help her in the kitchen. When the food was served the family would eat and I would stay in the kitchen doing the washing up, tidying away all the mess from the cooking and making everything neat and tidy. When they had finished I would eat my meal, I wasn’t allowed to have mine at the table, I had to eat in the kitchen.
Then I’d wash up my things and then finish any other work left over from the day. The children would go to bed at 8.30pm and the parents soon after. When everyone was in bed I would clean up the living room, and when everything was tidy I was allowed to go to bed.
If I didn’t finish all my tasks by the time the mother got home she would be angry. Sometimes she would leave me a list and I wouldn’t have it finished before she got home. Other times she would just tell me what she wanted me to do and I couldn’t remember it all. I used to get confused and panicked, it sometimes felt like she wanted me to fail.
When she got home she would go round the house to check whether I had done everything. If I had forgotten anything she would get furious and beat me or if anything happened to the baby, like he fell over, I would be in serious trouble.
LEARNING THE TRUTH
'It was when she was angry that she told me how I came to be in their house and how I found out I wasn’t their child.
'She would say she didn’t know why they had brought me from Nigeria and I was useless and didn’t know what I was doing.
'I never felt surprised when she told me this, I suppose deep down I always knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t get upset, I didn’t know how to show or feel emotion.'
'SHE WOULD TELL ME I WAS WORTHLESS'
When the mother was angry she would get a wooden spoon from the kitchen and hit me and leave bruises on my body. At other times she would hit me with her slippers. While she was doing this she would say mean things to me. She would tell me I was useless, worthless and would be nothing without her.
She didn’t treat her own children in this way. Mostly, she didn’t punish them at all. I was beaten and punished nearly every day as I couldn’t finish all the work she wanted me to do. She was never happy with my work and never thought I had done well enough. Sometimes she beat me so hard the skin was broken and I began to bleed. Other times I was bruised and swollen. I never got any treatment for me injuries. I had to look after myself. The mother’s answer for everything was ‘get a Paracetamol’.
Sometimes I would get sick but I was never taken to hospital. If I was sick I was given a break from working so I could rest. When I was small my teeth fell out but the mother told me to just throw the tooth away and another would grow back and say ‘get a Paracetamol’.
The only time I was able to leave the house was when the family went to church and took me with them. When we went to church I was not allowed to speak to anyone or make friends. People didn’t question who I was or what I was doing there because the ‘mother’ was such a big, popular, proud, confident women and people looked up to her. She absolutely terrified me.
The husband didn’t talk to me very much at all. He didn’t ask me to do many things and he didn’t punish me or shout at me. He just treated me differently to his real children. He didn’t talk to me or hug me or play games with me. To him I was just a servant, not a child.
'I REALISED I WASN'T ALONE'
At Christmas the family would give each other presents. They had their wider family over and enjoyed themselves but for me it was just like any other day, and I had to work. It was during these times that I realised I wasn’t alone.
Other young girls were sent to work in the kitchen with me to prepare the Christmas food and clean and tidy. We all knew we were suffering the same fate – servants to our families while they enjoyed Christmas. When we found the courage to talk quietly between us in the kitchen we shared the same awful experiences. We would always say to each other ‘what we say in here, stays in here’. I sometimes think about what might have happened to the girls and if they got away like I did. I hope they are happy now. I also think about how many more young girls like us are out there, somewhere, in London.
'She said if anyone found out they would take me away and put me in prison'
One day the mother asked me to get something from her room and I saw a handwritten page on her bed. On it was my full name – I had never seen it written before – and my birth date. I recognised the date because she had told me it was my birthday. I never got a card or present or party, but she would tell me it was my birthday.
She knew I had found the paper and she told me the information was about me. She told me I couldn’t tell anyone about it and that I would get in trouble if I did. She said if anyone found out they would take me away and put me in prison, and they might send me back to Nigeria because I had no right to be here. This made me very afraid. I didn’t know anyone in Nigeria. She told me that she had ‘helped me’ and that she was looking after me so I should be grateful and do as I was told.
'I STILL HAVE THE SCARS'
'If I forgot to do anything Alison would smack me. I used to think she was psychotic because she would get so angry and would only stop hitting me when she got tired. She said she had been told smacking me was the only way to teach me what I should and shouldn’t do. One morning I woke up late at 6.30am – I had forgotten to get up on time to do the ironing.
'She woke me up very angry and told me to go and do my work. I was ironing in the kitchen and she hit me with a wooden spoon, and told me I should never sleep that late again. She used to hit me quite often.
'On one occasion she beat me with a belt. I was bleeding a lot and the blood dripped on the rug in the bedroom. She told me to clean myself up and then come back and clean the rug. I still have scarring on my arm from the beating.
'I lived with that family for four or five years. I am not sure exactly how long. In this house I had to do more work than in the first house because I had to cook full meals every day.'
'THE DAY I LEFT THERE WAS NO EMOTION'
A few days after this I heard her on the phone speaking Yoruba. She was making plans to return to Nigeria and was arranging to give me to her friend when she left. She told her friend how she had used her daughter’s passport to get me into the UK and it had been very easy.
The family returned to Nigeria. They didn’t really tell me their plans. I only found out because I overheard – she didn’t bother to tell me because I was not important to her. I heard her tell her friends she didn’t want her children to go to secondary school in the UK. Some time after this she told me she was giving me to her friend to do housework. I must have been around 11 years old.
The day I left the family – I wasn’t sad, I was scared, there was no big goodbye, in fact there was no emotion from any of us. Her friend Alison came to collect me from the house. I wasn’t aware at the time but I later found out she paid money for me. I got into her car. I didn’t speak and she didn’t speak. I remember thinking that she looked small - a big difference to the last women - and she might actually be quite nice – how wrong I was.
When I first moved to my new home I had my own room but I was told it was needed for guests, so I had to sleep on the floor, even when there weren’t any guests. They had a lot of guests coming and going through the house. I don’t know why, other than because it was near to an airport.
I had to do all the work in the house. I cooked the meals, cleaned the whole house, looked after the children and sometimes helped with the shopping. I knew how to cook big complicated meals because my first ‘mother’ made sure I knew.
Every day I got up at 5am and ironed all the clothes I had washed the day before. Then I would make breakfast, take the baby to the nursery and all day I would look after the youngest baby. I had to feed her, change her and play with her. At 2pm I would go and fetch the toddler from nursery, look after him and make dinner. The nursery did not question who I was when I collected the child – I was simply known as ‘Auntie’, I imagine Alison had told them this.
'SHE MADE ME LEARN TO MAKE CAKES SO I COULD MAKE MONEY FOR HER'
When I was about 14 she made me go to college to do a course in cake decorating so I could make cakes for her friends and money for her. I had to go twice a week in the evenings. All the other people in the college were much older than me – the women in my class were in their twenties. Alison told me I had to tell people I was at university and doing the course in the holidays. I was never tempted to tell anyone about my situation as I feared what would happen. I was nervous about talking to people.
I found the class very difficult. The teacher always had to come and show me what she was talking about. I had never been in this environment and I didn’t know what to do. There was not much reading and writing involved but when I had to read the text book I would ask the teacher to help me. When I finished the course I wasn’t much better at baking cakes. I didn’t make many cakes to sell like she wanted – I made a cake for the children’s birthdays once but I wasn’t allowed to taste it so I don’t know if it was nice.
We all caught chicken pox once and the other children were taken to the doctor but I wasn’t. I had them all over me and felt very poorly. Alison was not concerned at all and told me that I still had to work. Other than that I didn’t get any serious illnesses.
She would bring clothes for me because I wasn’t allowed to go out and choose my own clothes. She didn’t notice when my clothes were too small so I had to tell her. She would always get me clothes two sizes too big because she only wanted me to wear loose clothes around the house. She mentioned something about her husband which I didn’t really understand.
I didn’t like living there and I didn’t want to stay there. Sometimes when she would really beat me and I would run to the neighbour’s house – Alison would always come get me, I would always go back with her and get another beating once we got back and the door closed. The neighbours knew something weird was going on. When I was hit I would beg them to let me stay with them because I didn’t want to be beaten anymore and they wanted to call the police and social services, but I would beg them not to. They knew I was scared and respected my wishes.
'I REALISED I COULDN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE'
The night I ran away she had told me to take her father’s suitcases to the car because he was going to the airport, but they were too heavy. She began to hit me really badly and I had to do what I was told. After they came back from the airport and went to bed I realised I couldn’t take it anymore. It was just too much for me. I’d had too much. I didn’t have a plan.
I was so nervous, my heart was racing. I just filled a bag with my clothes and snuck out the back door and ran and ran without looking back. I had no idea what I was going to do. I just kept going. I asked people on the street for money. I had nowhere to go and would sleep in parks and phone boxes, trying to avoid getting noticed, because I didn’t want Alison to find me or the police to take me away. On a night I used to find the darkest places to sleep so no one could see me and I could get some peace.
'If I had forgotten anything she would get furious and beat me or if anything happened to the baby, like he fell over, I would be in serious trouble'
One day I was sleeping in a phone box and although it was summer it had been a bit cold in the evenings. A lady came to use the phone box. She was Nigerian and spoke Yoruba. I cried and explained I had nowhere to go, I was so tired and lonely and frightened. I’d had enough. She said we needed to call the police – I begged her not to but she said she would not leave me in such a state. She took me to her house where she lived with her husband and a little boy, and eventually persuaded me to go to a police station near her house.
The police took me back to the borough I had lived in before. I told them I was scared and I didn’t want to go there but they gave me a foster mum. She was very nice and took me to buy clothes and toiletries but I was very scared. I stayed there for two weeks and then they moved me to another foster carer.
'POLICE JUST TOLD ME THEY'D STOPPED WORKING ON MY CASE'
The police carried out an investigation. I had a physical examination and I had to have some injections too, the type all children get at schools – only I was never allowed them.
I told the police what had happened as I wanted to help other girls in my situation and stop these people treating them so badly.
The police told me they had spoken to Alison, but they couldn’t find the first family. They didn’t tell me what they had said and then after a few weeks they said they weren’t working on my case anymore. They didn’t really explain to me why this was, only that there wasn’t enough evidence. All I heard was that they had been shown photos. I was with the family and I was looking happy in them. Nothing more was ever said or done. I was upset at this, but what more could I do?
When I moved in with me second foster family they arranged for me to go to school for the first time. I did a lot of assessments and had to do a lot of extra tasks to catch up. Living with my foster mother was nice. I could look after myself but I didn’t have to look after other people.
'SOCIAL WORKERS DID NOT BELIEVE MY ANSWERS'
I am not sure why an age assessment was carried out on my in April 2009. It might be because I was moved to a different team within social services. I am confused about why the local authority, having treated me as a child for so long, believed I was older than my stated age.
I was really heartbroken. Things had been going so well for me. I was working hard to sit my GCSE exams and really started to feel happy. I felt like I could start trusting a few people in my life.
During the age assessment the two social workers were quite disrespectful towards me, twisted my answers and manipulated what I said. They did not believe my answers and they rolled their eyes. It was as though they had made their decision already.
I was concerned that social services, when assessing my age, seemed to ignore the view of my school teachers despite the fact they see me every day. On the other hand, I have hardly had any contact with social services.
When questioned by the local authority as part of the age assessment I was only able to give estimates, especially in relation to the ages of children in the families I was living with. My life was not regulated by times and dates, but rather dictated by the people I lived with and worked for.
I believe that I may appear to be mature for my age but this may well be due to the life I have experienced. I was never given the opportunity to have a normal childhood. I have been through experiences that few young people could relate to or understand and this has forced me to grow up quickly. I was also never treated as a child and was burdened with a high level of responsibility from a young age. I was never aware of dates and times and was largely illiterate for the majority of my childhood. I did make me feelings known when I was informed of the outcome of my age assessment.
Soon after the age assessment I was informed by the local authority that it would only pay for my accommodation until my GCSE exams finished in June 2009 and I was extremely concerned about where I would be living after this time. I was moved to independent accommodation and informed that I would be provided with temporary accommodation there while I was being assisted in challenging the age assessment.
I didn’t know what was going to happen next and thought the worst.
'THE CHILDREN'S LEGAL CENTRE GAVE ME CONFIDENCE TO FIGHT'
Eventually I was put in touch with a charity called The Children’s Legal Centre. They fight for children’s legal rights. They were really understanding and stood by me every step of the way. They gave me the confidence to fight the local authority’s decision in court. It took us two years to win the case, but without the Children’s Legal Centre I would have never won and I don’t know what I would have done without them.
'I AM GOING TO MAKE THE MOST OF MY LIFE'
With the renewed support of my local authority I plan to study child care at college. I’m so used to looking after children now and think I could make a really good job of it. I’m also looking to see what volunteering jobs there are for me to do so I can make some new friends and learn some new skills.
I know there are other girls out there in the same situation as me. I hope they find the courage to run like I did. I think that families are now buying older girls who are trafficked here to work for them.
The families who buy them know that the girls would not get support if they left because they would be age assessed by the local authority, found to be over 18 and not entitled to help, so they have to stay there and put up with a miserable life serving other people. The families learn how to work the system quickly.
When I look back at my life I do get upset and don’t want to keep talking about it, I have changed so much.
If you met me five years ago I was quiet, I had no opinion, I was not open, didn’t show emotion, didn’t defend myself. Let’s just say, I didn’t know who I was. But now I’m going to make the most of my life. I was one of the lucky ones who got away. Now it’s my time to shine and I am going to shine.
Narrative as told to The Daily Mail. All credit given.
Original narrative can be found here