Despite being banned in Britain almost 200 years ago, slavery still exists today. And the faceless army of child slaves could be hard at work in the house next door…
By Laura Millar & Ceri Atkinson, 05/09/2010
When she was 12 years old, all Fayola wanted was to go to school, make some new friends and study hard to become a teacher when she grew up.
Instead, she spent her days cleaning, cooking and doing housework for the man who ‘bought’ her for just £200, after promising her mum in Nigeria that he’d give Fayola a good education in the UK.
But while the kids on Fayola’s north London street were getting told off for playing on their Xboxes instead of tidying their rooms, the bruises on her skin served as a reminder of what happened when she didn’t work hard enough.
Fayola was one of the thousands of children making up the faceless army of child slaves working in the UK. Children who could be in your town, your street, even the house next door. Because it’s not just sex workers in brothels and pickpockets in begging gangs who are being trafficked into Britain. Around 70 per cent of police raids for trafficking victims are on residential properties. In streets just like yours.
Thousands of children spend their days in domestic servitude in private homes – as highlighted last week by the Channel 4 drama, I Am Slave, which told the story of a 12-year-old African child sold into servitude, just like Fayola.
In some cases, babies and toddlers are used by distant relatives in cases of benefit fraud. They present the children to authorities as their own in the hope of getting large council houses and extra money.
There’s even increasing suspicion that British couples unable to have babies of their own are resorting to illegal adoptions, ordering children to be brought into the country.
Official Home Office statistics suggest 360 children are illegally brought into the UK every year, but experts believe the true number of youngsters being exploited could be in the thousands.
Despite this, a recent survey by trafficking charity ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography And The Trafficking Of Children) found that one in five British adults doesn’t even believe that child trafficking exists, while a third don’t accept that any of these children are ever brought to the UK. But according to ECPAT director, Christine Beddoe, these perceptions couldn’t be more wrong.
“The child who’s begging on the high street; the teenager taking little ones to school but never attending herself; the youngster who moves on to your street and only rarely ventures outside – these are all children who may have been trafficked,” she explains. “People assume it happens far away, but it’s closer to home than you might think.
“The numbers are increasing every year and it happens everywhere, from huge cities to small villages.”
The majority of children trafficked to the UK are from eastern Europe, south-east Asia and Africa. Trafficked to London from Nigeria when she was just 11, Fayola believed she was coming for a better life and education.
“After my dad died in a car crash, my mum really struggled to provide for me and my three younger brothers,” Fayola, now 18, recalls. “When a man arrived from the UK saying he was a friend of Dad’s and that he could help, it seemed like the answer to everything.”
Promising the chance of a bright future, the man offered to pay £200 in return for Fayola – enough to feed her family for six months.
“I really wanted to go,” she remembers. “I could already speak English and had done well at school. I dreamed of being a teacher, so in the end Mum agreed I could leave with him.”
Travelling to the UK by car, then ferry, Fayola was excited about her new life as she arrived at a British port. “The man told me to call him ‘Uncle’ before he handed over some paperwork to the officials,” Fayola says. “No one questioned us, we were waved through.”
But instead of starting her education in London as she’d hoped, Uncle had another plan for Fayola. “He told me the schools were closed for the holidays and that I couldn’t leave his house. He said the area was dangerous and he wanted me to be safe,” she remembers. “Then he gave me a list of jobs.
“At first, I didn’t mind. Everything was new, I was excited about being in the UK and wanted to impress Uncle, and to thank him for being so kind.”
But soon she was working 19-hour days, scrubbing floors until her fingers bled, washing endless piles of dirty clothes and cooking all Uncle’s meals for him. And whenever he went out to work as a cab driver, he locked Fayola inside the house. “I began to wonder when I’d be starting school,” she says. “But whenever I asked, Uncle got angry. He hit me hard across the face. I’d never seen someone so angry, and it really scared me.”
It was then he told Fayola she was in the country illegally. “He said I could never leave him, never go home. If I tried, he said I’d be thrown in prison, and that it would be all my own fault and I’d be in big trouble because I had no documents.”
Exhausted and broken, she resigned herself to Uncle’s brutal regime, crying herself to sleep every night after yet another beating. “I just wanted my mum,” she whispers.
Too scared to try to escape, Fayola spent the next three years alone. Uncle bought her clothes when she needed them, but she had no bed and slept on the sofa instead.
She saw no one, apart from the fleeting glimpses of local children playing in the street. “I thought I didn’t deserve to be like them,” she says. Her only link to the outside world were the secret minutes she’d spend watching the TV when Uncle was at work.
“Even then I was so jumpy,” she says. “I never knew when Uncle would be back and he’d be so cross if I wasn’t working.”
At the age of 14, Fayola hit puberty and her body started to change into that of a young woman. And the way her Uncle treated her also began to change.
“When he came home one night he put his hands on my breasts,” she says. “I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew it was wrong. It was something different from the beatings, but I didn’t like it.”
Screaming, Fayola ran from the living room into the hallway, where to her amazement, Uncle had left the front door key on the table. Seizing her chance, Fayola made a run for it. “I had nothing,” she says. “Just the T-shirt and trousers I was wearing.”
With no friends, nowhere to go and no clue where she was, the disorientated teenager wandered the streets crying for hours.
“I ended up slumped inside a shop doorway, sobbing, when a man approached me,” she says. “He said his name was Malcolm*. He was older than me, in his 20s. He spoke kindly, asking why I was crying, and he listened when I told him what had happened with Uncle.”
Border poilce try to spot the traffickers
But instead of taking Fayola to the police, Malcolm had other ideas. “He said I could stay with him,” Fayola says. “I had no one, nothing. Compared to what I’d been through, he could only be a better option. And I was really grateful that he wasn’t going to get me into trouble with the authorities.”
Malcolm was going home to Manchester after completing a building job in London. He took a dazed Fayola to the train station, bought her a one-way ticket and led her back to his flat. However, while he had seemed kind, in return for letting her stay, Malcolm wanted something from her.
“A few nights after I arrived, Malcolm had sex with me,” she says. “I was a virgin and very frightened, but I thought I owed it to him. He didn’t beat me, he didn’t make me work. I felt I had to give him something.”
Fayola ended up staying with Malcolm in Manchester for the next two years.
“Compared to Uncle, Malcolm was wonderful,” she says. “I was so grateful someone was treating me nicely, I didn’t think it strange that he wanted to sleep with a young girl.”
Malcolm allowed Fayola to leave the flat each day and slowly she began venturing into the local area.
“It was so strange being surrounded by people,” she says. “I was scared they’d know I was in the UK illegally and I couldn’t really speak to anyone at first. But just being free to watch TV, read a book or walk down the street felt amazing.”
Then, when she was 16, Malcolm accepted a job abroad and Fayola had to move out of the flat. Again, she was desperate. Legally, she didn’t exist, and with no money, she had to think fast.
“I couldn’t get a job anywhere, so I did the only thing I could think of. I’m not proud of it, but I started sleeping with men for money,” Fayola admits, tearfully. “I had no choice.”
Two months after she began working as a prostitute in Manchester, Fayola cracked, spilling her story to a customer.
“I had nothing to lose any more,” she says.
Shocked, he tried to help her, telling Fayola to go to the Home Office in Liverpool.
“He said I could try and claim asylum,” she says. “I was scared about what the authorities would do to me, but I’d reached rock-bottom by that point.”
After being interviewed by the Home Office, Fayola was referred to the Poppy Project, a charity that helps women who have been trafficked. They provided her with somewhere to stay and legal advice to help her claim asylum.
Now, Fayola is slowly rebuilding her life in the UK.
“It’s taken over nine months, but I’m starting to feel more secure. I still look over my shoulder, scared Uncle is coming to take me again, but I’m having counselling to help. I’m even starting a university course in psychology this month,” she says.
There’s one thing Fayola’s not been able to do however, and that is speak to her mum back in Nigeria.
“She can’t find out what’s happened to me. It would kill her,” Fayola says sadly. “But I think about her and my brothers every day. I hope I can make them proud.”
For details about the Poppy Project, visit Eaves4women.co.uk, and for more about ECPAT, visit Ecpat.org.uk.
What’s being done to stop the trafficking?
In the wake of other trafficking cases, including the shocking death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, a specialist service called Paladin has been set up by the Metropolitan Police in London to prevent traffickers entering the UK.
Victoria was brought from the Ivory Coast to London at the age of seven by her great aunt, Marie-Thérèse Kouao, and her partner, Carl Manning, to help them defraud the benefit system. She died in 2000 of horrific neglect and abuse. Kouao and Manning are serving life sentences for her murder.
The Paladin team liaises with immigration officers to spot children being brought illegally into the country. If they have concerns, they interview the adults.
“If we can act before these children disappear, there’s a chance we’ll save them and reunite them with their families,” says DI Gordon Valentine.
Worldwide, human trafficking is the second biggest illegal earner after the drugs trade. And once children slip through the net, it’s almost impossible to find them. Which is why the Government is pledging to do more to help.
“Human trafficking, particularly child trafficking, is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously,” says Home Secretary Teresa May. “It’s modern-day slavery. Currently, we have some great resources in the UK, but we also need to raise awareness. Everyone can get involved, whether that’s reporting an unaccompanied child who doesn’t appear to be in school, or suspicious behaviour between a child and an adult. The Government will be looking at creating projects to help, but we can all do our bit.”
Penny Jaitly is an immigration officer and works closely with Paladin. She says:
“I’m trained to look for signs that a child isn’t part of the family they’ve arrived with. Do they look scared? Do they sit close to the people they’re with?
I interviewed two German sisters, aged 13 and 14, brought to join the sex trade. Their parents died and a ‘family friend’ promised them a better life here. We found condoms in their bags and it was clear what was expected of them, so social services took over from there.
It’s hard seeing toddlers who don’t understand why they’ve been separated from their mums, and teenagers destined for exploitation. I try not to get emotional but with two sons of my own, I can’t help it. Knowing the work I do can keep vulnerable children safe makes it all worth it.”