Slavery: Men are victims too.

Sleeping rough on the streets of Bratislava, age 19, Mariusz* was approached by a man who offered him work, with food and accommodation, and the chance to build a new life in the UK. It was December 2009 and within hours Mariusz was in a car on the way to his new friend’s house. It was an easy decision to make. He had so little to leave behind. On arrival, he was introduced to the man’s wife and brother. He was given coffee and biscuits and later ate dinner. He then slept in a bed with the knowledge that soon he would be on his way to the UK, flights paid for by his new friend. By the next afternoon, Mariusz was stepping onto the runway at Stansted airport,and things were about to go badly wrong.

Seven years later, Mariusz is sat downstairs on the sofa at Unseen’s safe-house for men. He’s watching a reality TV programme about auctioneers and giggling like a child at the rhythmic sound of the auction calling.

At the airport in the UK, Mariusz was met by his new employer and told to get in his car. Straight away, Mariusz was put to work in restaurants and takeaways, working up to eighteen hours a day, six or seven days a week. If he was paid, it would be around five pounds a day, ten if he was lucky. He was moved around relentlessly. He thought about escaping frequently but he didn’t know anybody or have anywhere to go to. He spoke little English and his self-esteem and confidence had been shattered.

Mariusz was held captive, here in the UK, for seven long difficult years: over a quarter of his life. He was punched, slapped and kicked if his work was deemed too slow or not good enough. As the abuse progressed, he was beaten with sticks and whipped with a belt. His abusers would chastise him - shouting at him and threatening him with the long serrated knives they used to carve kebab meat in the takeaway. Finally, two men came into his room at night and took it in turns to hold him down as they raped him. He tried to stop them, but it was no use. Mariusz is small and very thin. They would have known he couldn’t fight them off.

That night, disheveled, bleeding, and terrified, Mariusz fled. In the early hours of the morning, he found a police station. The next day he limped through the door of Unseen’s project, penniless and utterly traumatised.

It was days before he really spoke to anyone. He just curled up on the sofa, trying to avoid eye contact. Gradually he has opened up and Unseen is doing all sorts of work with Mariusz, just as we do with all our residents. Our team has supported him to engage with counselling and to have the epilepsy, that he’s suffered from for the last twelve years, diagnosed and medicated for the first time. The team facilitated his first dentist visit since childhood and he’s having almost a whole set of new teeth put in. We’re helping him obtain ID and learn English so that he is more able to support himself in the future.

Unseen opened the doors of its men’s safe-house 18 months ago. It is one of the first places in the UK to offer specialist, intensive support to male survivors of trafficking and slavery. In our experience, the biggest predicting factor in men becoming victims of slavery seems to be childhood poverty or deprivation. Some survivors tell us they have grown up in the care system and spent time on the streets. We find that many lack basic life skills due to never experiencing life outside the daily grind of extreme poverty.

Since we opened, we have offered refuge to over twenty-five men, from all over the world, of various backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, religions, and in varying levels of crisis. Men trafficked to work in factories and warehouses, on farms, in car washes, in nail bars. Men forced to work, beg and to commit crime. The safe-house aims to give hope, choice and safety back to men who had their freedom taken away. The house has been continuously full since its doors opened.

As I write this, I reflect on all that has happened to Mariusz and all the residents that stay with us. In the face of such adversity, such horror, I remember that the most important thing is that right now, Mariusz is in a place where he can sit on a sofa, laughing at the TV, safely, without being in fear of anyone. Though it may well take some time to get used to. Since arriving here, he is nobody's property, nobody’s slave.

This blog was written by one of Unseen’s Project Managers.

*Mariusz’s name has been changed to protect his identity.