Although she didn’t realise it, Katherine* has been a victim of trafficking and slavery for most of her adult life. It’s only now that she is safe living at Unseen’s Safehouse, now that she has learned to trust again, that she’s able to grasp the complexity of her situation – and, crucially, understand the constant abuse she suffered wasn’t normal.
Growing up in Eastern Europe, Katherine used alcohol and drugs to cope with the stresses of her life. Having narrowly escaped the clutches of a man who tried to force her to work as a prostitute, she was living rough on the streets. Katherine then met a kind Asian man.
“He offered me a place to sleep and to look after me. He said he had a spare room and that he could give me £100 a week to live on. I trusted him,” she says.
But as soon as she moved in, he took her phone and psychologically manipulated her, using alcohol and drugs to control her. It later transpired he’d probably been watching Katherine for weeks, knowing she was vulnerable and that providing alcohol would win her trust. Traffickers will find any weakness and worm their way into their victim’s life, twisting and turning, so the person is often not aware they’re being manipulated.
“I had no house, no money, and I was dependent on him. He took me places I didn’t want to go. He would call the police on me a lot and say that I was using him for alcohol and things. One time he called the police. I was drunk. I had a knife in my hand. I went to prison,” says Katherine.
Her trafficker said he’d paid her bail – again creating a sense of indebtedness – and, in order to escape deportation, Katherine felt her only option was to marry him because he had a British passport.
“After we married, I had to cook and clean for him and his friend. Every time he wanted, I had to go with him to bed. I couldn’t say no because he was an abusive person. He would take pictures and videos of me naked and in the shower. I didn’t know what he was doing with them.
“I had no right to work, no right to go to the shops, I had to wear a black thing that covered me apart from my eyes, no rights, the doors were locked. I told the police a few times that he was locking the doors, but I had a bad record, so they didn’t listen. He stopped me from being able to live. Even when I managed to escape, he tracked me down. I couldn’t hide. He was linked to Albanian mafia.”
This went on for years. Katherine couldn’t return home because people would be waiting for her and knew her family.
When Katherine’s trafficker decided he didn’t want her any longer, he called the police for the final time. Because of the lies he told, she was taken to a detention centre before being deported. While waiting there, an officer listened to Katherine’s story and finally recognised her as a victim of modern slavery.
“I thought I was going to be deported, but instead, I got a phone call. I was told I had a safe place to go: Unseen’s Women’s Safehouse.
“If I didn’t get that phone call and was deported again, things would be different. I wasn’t deported because of the laws here. People like me should talk to the police. It’s what got me help, and it helps bring traffickers to justice.
“I’m volunteering now. I want to help and to get a job one day and to find my family. I haven’t seen them in years, and it would make me so happy. I am a different person now.
“But I’m worried about the people like me, people who wouldn’t be allowed support, who don’t talk, the people who still have no choices in life. The people that have different choices to make – not the choice of whether to come to the UK legally, but simply the choice between life or death. We must make a choice to be alive. We have to.”
She calls herself ‘Katherine’ because, she says, “this is the name I give myself sometimes when I imagine what my life would be like if it were different.”
Now Katherine is safe. Now she is beginning to dream of what she can achieve with her life.
As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.
For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.
I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.
In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.
What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.
But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.
I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.
This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.
When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.