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Shocking stories reveal the truth about modern slavery in the UK

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Three women share their experiences of modern slavery and human trafficking with stylist.co.uk

Modern slavery and human trafficking might not be things we consider to be rife in the UK – for most of us, the concept of such acts can feel shocking, and distant from our own lives.

However, modern slavery is ever-present in our society, and currently in the spotlight following the release of Doing Money. The BBC drama follows the story of a Romanian woman snatched from the streets in London and trafficked to Ireland, where she is forced into prostitution. Based on a true story, the drama is a shocking and unsettling look at the reality of modern slavery in the UK, and timely, too: 5,145 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in 2017 alone, an increase of 35% from 2016.

A scene from Doing Money

Figures from the Home Office show how extensive the abuse each victim is subjected to can be. According to the official slavery figures, each victim is likely to be subjected to 388 rapes, 407 other sexual offences and 34 other violent crimes while being sexually exploited. Numerous victims suffer from depression, fear and anxiety, and they are also more likely to get STIs.

Here, stylist.co.uk shares three women’s stories of modern slavery in the UK.

Please note: the following stories are graphic and might be difficult for some people to read.


Xin, 20, is from China. Her parents died suddenly when she was nine years old and she was taken in by a relative, who put her to work as a domestic servant.

At the age of 11 she was introduced to a man working with her aunt, and forced into prostitution. She was terrified but too small to resist. The treatment she endured was physically and sexually barbaric, and she has scars all over her body as a result. At the age of 14, she attempted suicide. As punishment for this, she was kept in solitary confinement and chained up.

Aged 19, having endured 10 years of slavery and prostitution, her aunt sold her to a customer. Xin was trafficked to the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation. She hoped her buyer would help her escape but, to her dismay, she found herself in a brothel. It was approaching Christmas so it was cold, with short days and long nights. After a few weeks, she managed to escape through a bathroom window. She ran, wearing only flimsy indoor clothing and footwear. She didn’t speak a word of English and had no idea where she was. A passer-by found a Chinese person and Xin explained that she was in danger. She was taken to the police and applied to the Home Office for asylum. Her claim was refused, but on appeal she was granted three years of humanitarian protection.

Following this, Xin was referred to the team at the Helen Bamber Foundation. Initially she would sob silently throughout sessions, covering her head and staring at the floor. She was in incredible pain but could not vocalise her distress. After a slow start, she began to engage in therapeutic work. She began to dress differently, and started to take pride in her appearance.

Gradually, Xin felt able to trust the team at the Foundation and believe she was worth caring for. She has never missed an appointment, despite the pain of articulating her difficulties. Speaking about her experience, she says: “I am like a baby again in this strange country. I have to start learning everything all over again, but I have to do it quickly because I have already lost so many years.”

Her therapist provided two detailed reports for Xin’s appeal hearing, and gave evidence in court to support her asylum claim. Bearing witness is a profound and important validation of a survivor’s experiences.

Xin is highly intelligent and has learned English very quickly. As soon as she was given leave to remain in the UK she got a job, and only received benefits for a single week. Despite grieving for her losses, Xin is optimistic about what her life holds. She recently took the therapist’s hand, looked her in the eye and said, “I will have a future and you will see it.”


Maria lived in a village in East Africa. She was eight when her mother died. A neighbour took her in but treated her like a slave. When Maria was 16, her surrogate mother brought her to England, saying that she would be able to fulfil her dream of becoming a nurse. But when they arrived at the airport, Maria was handed over to a man to whom she had been sold.

The man beat her and raped her repeatedly, and forced her to be a prostitute in his house. It took Maria four years to escape. She lived on the streets for six months before she came to the Helen Bamber Foundation.

The Foundation has helped Maria secure accommodation and medical treatment, and provided psychological therapy. The Foundation’s documentation of her physical and psychological injuries was crucial in successful legal proceedings against her trafficker.

Maria is now training to become a nurse. Not only that, but she also has a long-term partner and a close circle of friends.


Sophie was approached in her country in Europe by her sister’s friend, Robert. He promised her a better life, as well as support and medical care for her children, so she agreed to travel to the UK with her two young sons. When Sophie arrived in the UK, she was taken to Robert’s house, where he lived with his wife and other family members. Robert encouraged Sophie to apply for child benefit and child tax credit but, once the money arrived, he kept it.

Robert forced Sophie into prostitution and she was made to have sex with various men who came to the house. Sophie alleged that Robert threatened her and would not give her and her children food unless she complied with his requests, as well as those of his customers.

On several occasions he also forced her to have sex with him and he would threaten to throw her and her children out if she disobeyed his orders. Sophie was warned never to disclose the activities to anyone, or she and her family back home would be in serious danger.

Sophie did not have enough food for herself and her two boys, who were about two years old at the time. She fed them with sugar, calling on local neighbours to give her sugar which she would mix with water and put in to her son’s bottles. The neighbours became concerned about the family’s situation and contacted a local charity in the area where they lived. The charity referred Sophie to Bawso.

Sophie and the children received all the necessary help and support from the anti-human trafficking project within Bawso, where they were given accommodation and other practical support including counselling, health care services, language support and financial support.

Sophie was rehoused in the community in social housing, and her benefit needs were addressed. She now lives independently with her new partner and her two children. Her language and parenting skills have improved tremendously and she is now able to do things for herself without asking for support. 

All three of the above stories took place in the UK, and the statistics surrounding the issue are shocking. Abuses of human rights occur regularly in 150 countries worldwide, while 30 million people across the globe are estimated to be living under conditions of slavery – more than at any time during the historic transatlantic slave trade.

Last year, more than 320 suspects were arrested here in the UK, according to Will Kerr, director of vulnerabilities for the National Crime Agency. And with 30% of those who request international protection in the UK thought to have been the victim of torture or serious harm, it’s an issue that urgently needs our attention.

Speaking about how to identify a possible victim of modern slavery or human trafficking, Kerr tells stylist.co.uk that there are a number of signs to look for. “While victims are sometimes hidden away, they are often working in plain sight,” he says. “Look out for people who are often withdrawn, scared or unwilling to interact. They may be showing signs of mistreatment and ill health or living in over-crowded, cramped and dirty accommodation.

“Trust your instincts, and when you think something doesn’t look right, speak out. Anyone with suspicions should call their local police on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.”

There are a number of charities and foundations in the UK that aim to help the victims of trafficking and slavery. One of these is the Helen Bamber Foundation, a London-based human rights charity founded in 2005 that supports victims through offering lifelines such as housing, therapy, healthcare and legal support.

Offering an insight into the work of the charity, Rachel Witkin, head of counter trafficking, describes the horror of life as a victim.

“It’s difficult for people to imagine being kept naked or semi-naked and having your body repeatedly sold to others who then ‘own’ you, can rape you, and exercise any perversion or violence that they choose to,” she tells stylist.co.uk. “Sexual exploitation is inflicted upon both women and men in basements, in brothels, nightclubs, suburban neighbourhoods, and high-class hotels.

“When we first meet victims they are often traumatised, extremely afraid and unable to trust the motivations of other people towards them. Conversely they may have lost their understanding of the normal boundaries and expectations in relationships, and are therefore vulnerable to trusting any person who may show them interest… 

“There is no straightforward recovery trajectory, and we therefore offer a model of integrated care for as long as each person requires it.” 

Witkin believes the key to ending modern slavery lies in an “intelligent approach” to victim care. “In our experience, it is only with appropriate assistance, protection and support that victims feel able to fully co-operate with the police and find the courage to speak out against their traffickers,” she adds.

All images courtesy of Invisible People, a photography exhibition that was part of the National Crime Agency’s campaign to raise awareness of modern slavery and human trafficking. Images shot by shot by Rory Carnegie and Juliette Carton

Other images courtesy of BBC

This article was originally published on 7 March 2018, when the exhibition was touring the UK


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

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