Wayne came from a family of addiction. By the age of 16 he had left school behind – having tried cannabis on his last day – and soon went on to become a teen alcoholic.
‘My mother and father are both addicts and alcoholics. You can imagine a child growing up around that – a house full of drugs, violence, indescribable trauma, strangers in our home off their heads,’ remembers Wayne, who shares his story under a pseudonym.
It was this combination of addiction and isolation that made the teenager a prime target for violent gangs and a victim of criminal exploitation forced to sell drugs to pay off an ongoing debt he knew he would never be able to settle.
Recalling how his life spiralled out of control, Wayne says it all started when he got his first job. ‘I was befriended by a guy. This was where the exploitation started.’
Soon the two were meeting up outside of work to smoke weed. Then one day the friend turned up at his house asking him to sell two big ounces of cannabis. Instead of selling it however, Wayne smoked the lot. ‘It was like Christmas come early,’ he admits.
What he didn’t know at the time, was that he had been targeted by his ‘friend’, who was really part of a gang that operated in fraud and exploitation, and demanded he gave back £300 for what he’d smoked.
‘So, I started trying to sell drugs for him to pay off this money, but he’s giving me more and more drugs. I’m smoking more, so this debt’s getting higher and higher,’ recalls Wayne.
As well as paying off his initial debt of £300, Wayne’s friend kept adding interest making the amount impossible to settle. When he couldn’t, he was driven to a secluded area where a gang of men threatened to shoot Wayne if he didn’t pay the money he owed. They also made it clear they knew where his mother lived.
Although Wayne managed to cobble together the cash owed from a friend, the gang continued to demand more – and didn’t stop for three years. In that time, Waynemoved out of the family home in a bid to keep them safe, and began living on the streets. By the time he turned up to a dry house four years later, all he had was a black bag and a coat inside of it. ‘I had no passport, no birth certificate,’ he remembers.
Although Wayne has since managed to turn his life around with the support of a rehab programme through the dry house and is now sober and working in social care, the impact of being exploited in such a brutal manner has left its mark.
‘It’s tough. My mental health is never steady,’ he admits. ‘I live with the effects of exploitation. I live with the effect of homelessness, the trauma, and will probably be living with it for the rest of my life.’
Wayne is just one of the hundreds of people that has been helped by the anti-slavery charity Unseen over the years. Although his experience may not fit the bill of what a ‘modern slavery’ victim might look like, his experiences of exploitation at the hands of hardened criminals proves that there’s no one size fits all.
In fact, according to Andrew Wallis, Unseen’s CEO, it’s key that people understand that exploitation can happen to anyone – traffickers have no respect for race, sex, nationality, education level, they just look for a vulnerable person.
What’s just as concerning is that last year was the busiest year for the charity’s helpline, which operates 24/7 and 365 days a year, with an 116% increase from the previous year in calls about potential victims and a shocking 70% rise in modern slavery cases being reported.
‘Over the seven years for which the helpline has been running, there has been a steady increase,’ explains Andrew, although he’s keen to stress that this is not just down to a rising number of victims, it’s also due to better understanding of the issue. ‘2022 saw people coming out of the pandemic, there is more awareness of our helpline,’ he says.
Andrew also believes that this is also due to the trust victims have in the charity, saying that Unseen are ‘the only national helpline of scale around the globe that doesn’t receive government funding.’ Which means that victims may feel a confidence that their data won’t be shared with immigration officials or other officials.
‘That level of confidentiality and safety is absolutely key for victims,’ he says.
However, that doesn’t mean the charity works under a veil of secrecy. In fact, they often share the stories of those they have helped, such as Wayne, albeit anonymously, so victims feel secure that they can’t be tracked down by their abusers.
‘We want to highlight how easy it is to be trafficked,’ Andrew tells Metro.co.uk. ‘A reason why victims want to speak about their experiences is that they don’t want others to go through what they have. It also reinforces the deception phase of recruitment and shows that anyone can be trafficked and be a victim of modern slavery.
‘The range of emotions that victims go through vary on a case-by-case basis,’ adds Andrew.
Some have just been pulled out by the police and are turning up to Unseen literally with their worldly possessions or just the clothes that the police have given to them, he explains. While others come through a local authority such as Unseen or the Salvation Army and are referred via the national referral mechanism.
‘Victims can feel guilt, anger, or even feel stupid for putting themselves in that situation,’ he explains. ‘I remember one client telling us they were told by their exploiters: “You amount to nothing, if you step out of line, we will just kill you and toss your body. No one will find you; you are worthless.”
‘Traffickers think of their victim as valuable while they are making money for them. In essence, it is an economic crime, it is all about making money with horrendous human rights outcomes.’
Another story shared on Unseen’s website is that of Priscilla, a victim of modern slavery, who was abused for years and forced to live in hellish conditions.
Orphaned at a young age when she was living in South Africa, she was sent to live with her grandmother nearby who had very little money, and couldn’t afford to send her to school.
Instead, the little girl stayed at home and helped out with chores. One day Priscilla – who also goes by a pseudonym – was told by her grandmother that she had found her work in the UK, and gave her a passport and airline tickets.
However, instead of living the life she dreamed she might have in England, the young girl found herself trapped in a private family house, treated as a slave, and made to feel worthless constantly for years.
Although Priscilla doesn’t detail what she was forced to go through, there have been countless cases of young women being trafficked to the UK and kept virtual prisoners, having to endlessly cook and clean for families, while receiving no wages or time off. Some have even been expected to have sex as part of their job.
Priscilla reveals that although she eventually managed to escape ,with nowhere to go, she was forced to live on the streets. As her mental health declined, she was eventually found by the authori and sectioned.
It was while she was recovering in hospital that Priscilla was put in touch with Unseen, and eventually released to one of their safe houses. There, she received support to help with her trauma and took part in music therapy, cooking and nutrition classes.
‘I have seen changes in my life,’ she says. ‘I was unable to make decisions for myself before. Now I make my own decisions. I’m happy that I can do things by myself.’
With an estimated 100,000 – 130,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK right now, Andrew believes far more needs to be done to tackle the issue.
‘It doesn’t sit on the national threat assessment level at which it should,’ he says. ‘There is an issue of funding, a lack of training and awareness on the matter. I cannot say that every police officer knows what modern slavery is, how to identify it and deal with it or that every agency understands what modern slavery and knows how to report on it. We are nowhere near that.’
He adds that it’s not just the police who need better training either – local government and NHS staff could also benefit.
Asked whether the Ukraine War has had an impact on these numbers, Andrew admits it’s undeniable. ‘Four and a half million women and children fleeing… There are traffickers at the border, and we are also finding people across the borders and in the UK already,’ he says.
Speaking about what he would want to see happen going forward with preventing modern slavery and exploitation, Andrew explains there are several changes that need to be made. ‘One is that we need to upgrade legislation in the UK. The government promised two years ago to bring forward the modern slavery legislation and they still haven’t done this,’ he says.
‘Secondly, I want to see manifesto commitments from every party that they will bring forward this legislation. Thirdly, upgrade the transparency and supply piece within the legislation so companies have to report all incidents of modern slavery and explain if there is none.’
Modern slavery: the facts
According to the Unseen Modern Slavery Exploitation Helpline Annual Assessment 2022, the helpline saw an increase across all four common modern slavery typologies: labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and criminal exploitation.
The greatest increase was in labour exploitation, which was a staggering 134%. Meanwhile, domestic servitude cases increased by 75%, sexual exploitation by two thirds, and criminal exploitation, such as Wayne’s experience, saw an increase of 16%.
You can contact the the Modern Slavery Helpline by clicking here or by calling08000 121 700.
Andrew also says that the government already has the tools to make things better, pointing out that the Modern Slavery Act 2015, Section 54 states: ‘the home secretary can take any company to court who hasn’t produced a modern slavery report.’
However, he adds, there have been thousands of companies who haven’t produced a Modern Slavery Statement but not one home secretary has taken anyone to court. ‘This is a local, national, and global problem – but there is only around 1% successful prosecutions of crimes related to modern slavery.’
However, there is a chink of hope. Unseen believe that by sharing the harrowing stories of those who have experienced exploitation, the more it will be uncovered.
After all, Andrew points out, a quarter of calls to the helpline come from victims, which means the rest – and the resulting increase in calls – are from people coming forward to report a form of slavery or exploitation.
‘The more you look for exploitation, the more you find it,’ he says.
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