Access to online services through mobile technology is essential for survivors of modern slavery – and should be considered a necessary element of survivor support. That’s the conclusion of a new report jointly published by Unseen and Bristol University’s ARC West.

Reliance on digital technology to communicate is an essential part of most people’s lives, and even more vital during the Covid-19 pandemic, the report states.

However, many people have little or no access to this kind of technology, and often these same people also face significant social and health inequalities.

The research began with BT, another partner in the project, donating smartphones, SIM cards and data bundles for the study. Findings were based on interviews with 27 survivors of modern slavery, survivor wellbeing questionnaires, and survey responses from 12 Unseen staff who support survivors.

“I think it’s mainly for social media cos I’m a single mum,” said one survivor. “… it helps me to catch up with friends online or watch funny videos, forget what is going on around me and I’m not just moody all day.”

Says Kate Garbers, one of the report’s authors: “Unseen had long felt that digital exclusion was a real issue among survivors being supported.

“A practical solution to this issue was offered by BT and enabled Unseen to offer survivors smartphones and internet access.

“Both Unseen and BT wanted to understand the impact that access to technology had for survivors and partnering with Bristol University was a perfect opportunity to gather data and first-hand accounts in relation to the impact this intervention had.

“We hope the report will also be used as evidence by people and organisations supporting other vulnerable groups in our society.”

The project examined the impact of mobile technology access on this group, in terms of:

  • mental health
  • wellbeing
  • social connections
  • ability to access services
  • levels of independence and isolation.

The research concluded that getting online is extremely beneficial to survivors’ wellbeing in normal times. In the pandemic such access was essential in providing a mechanism by which survivors could support themselves at a time when face-to-face support was severely limited.

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Justine Currell

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.

Andrew Wallis

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.