News / 9 April 2020

The impact of CV-19 on modern slavery survivors


Covid-19 is affecting everyone, but for the survivors of modern slavery, the impact will be felt even more, writes Kate Garbers.


The number of people in the UK that have escaped modern slavery is growing rapidly. Newly published figures reveal that in 2019, 10,627 people were referred into the UK framework for identifying victims of human trafficking, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

This is a 52% increase on the previous year and comes at a time when future support for survivors of modern slavery is in jeopardy. More people could be competing for increasingly limited help.

Those who are being supported in some way, by charities like Unseen or other agencies, are likely to be in dire situations now Covid-19 is in full stride.

The things that many of us take for granted – a furnished home, TV, Netflix, help with childcare, Wi-Fi, loved ones to rely on and support us – are not a reality for the survivors that Unseen supports. And that's without a pandemic hitting.

Help with childcare is no longer an option

Most survivors get by on a limited financial allowance, relying on such things as food banks and free or cheap nurseries to improve their quality of life.

Now, with the whole nation on shutdown, such services that give survivors a semblance of normality are no longer there for support.

Gone also are the specialist counselling and therapy services many survivors need to help with their feelings of dissociation, sleeplessness, anxiety and flashbacks.

Likewise education and group activities, which are a crucial part of recovery. As a result, we are seeing an increased deterioration in survivors’ mental health.

Traumatic memories

Having previously been held against their will, it’s easy to imagine that Covid-19 feels like a similar experience for survivors all over again and triggers traumatic memories – restricted in their movement, being told what to do, limited or no access to emotional and practical support, and completely isolated.

Despite the huge squeeze on Unseen’s income brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still supporting survivors in our safehouses and through our outreach services, rebuilding lives in the community.

Rules on social distancing and lockdown mean we are increasingly using technology to connect. In theory this should work fine, but when clients have no mobile phone plan and no data, the support we can give, and connect them to, is limited.

The Zoom calls, Facetime and Skype that many of us take for granted, and organisations and friends worldwide who help us cling on to normality, are not available to the isolated group that Unseen supports.

Face-to-face contact

Because of this remote working is not an option for some of our frontline teams. On a daily basis they are required to meet with those we support in the community, to ensure that they have enough food, money and essential items.

Clients have been running out of nappies for their children and many have been struggling with being totally cut off as they do not own a phone. Our support and care packages have become a lifeline.

At safehouses staff are having to explain to residents how to self-isolate, and the importance of more stringent cleaning regimes and increased personal hygiene.

All this via translators, to a group of individuals from different countries, with different cultural expectations, different levels of understanding and carrying horrific experiences of exploitation.

If people decide not to listen or follow our advice, are, we really meant to call the police to enforce isolation measures?

At the safehouses we have had to increase shift lengths and lone working to reduce staff contact time and ensure we have enough healthy staff to navigate this crisis.

No personal protection equipment

Like some in the NHS our teams are working without personal protective equipment (PPE). And like thousands across the country, our frontline teams are heroes, going way beyond normal expectations to serve those who are more vulnerable than they are.

We are currently supporting over 80 survivors through our safehouses and community outreach services. It’s a tough task, made even tougher by the drying up of a significant part of our funding due to coronavirus. We’re doing all we can to support some of the most vulnerable people in society in these difficult times, but the future gets more uncertain by the day.

Please consider donating to our Covid-19 crisis appeal, and help us give survivors of modern slavery the support they deserve.

Kate Garbers is a Director of Unseen


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Photograph by Markus Spiske