To understand what Y has been through is to travel back to a time when she was five years old. Like thousands of other highly vulnerable children, she was illegally smuggled into the UK by traffickers. She was brought here with a fake passport and quickly sold to the highest bidder. Now eighteen and having being kept as a slave for more than a decade, she has been able to break her silence about the harrowing upbringing initially among a family she believed was her own. When I interviewed her I became increasingly concerned about other girls kept as slaves by families in London whom Y has met. Here is her story in brief.
Y had been born in Nigeria – she can’t remember where as nobody told her. She still doesn’t know who her family are and only knows her date of birth because she saw it written down in the house where she grew up in England. It was in this house that Y was subjected to years of cruelty and slavery from the moment she arrived. Denied education and given limited access to the outside world, her first memories are of neglect and subservient work before she was ‘sold on’ to another family.
“I wasn’t told that they were sending me to a new house, I was simply delivered there. When I arrived I was given my own room, but was made to sleep on the floor”, recalls Y. “I had to do all the work. I cooked the meals, cleaned, and looked after the children. I sometimes helped with the shopping on the odd occasion I was allowed to leave the house.”
This systematic abuse continued for years and Y suffered regular beatings when her house-work did not meet the highest standard.
“On one occasion I was beaten with a belt. I was bleeding a lot, my blood was all over the rug in the bedroom”, says ‘Y'. “I was told to clean myself up and then clean the rug. I still have the scars. Every time I tried to escape the ‘family’ knew where to find me. They threatened to call the police and have me thrown in prison – I was so scared about what would happen that I would just go back with them.
“Sometimes while I was working and the children were watching TV I saw or heard it, or sometimes I watched it when the mother was not around. I used to love watching TV when I had the house to myself. I always knew what time to turn it off so no one would know. One day I heard the mother close the car door - she was early. I panicked and turned off the television and looked busy. When she got into the house, I must have looked guilty, she walked over to the TV and put her hand down the back – she felt that it was warm. I got a really bad beating that day.”
"I realised that I was not alone"
“At Christmas the family would give each other presents. They had their wider family over and enjoyed themselves but for me it was just like any other day, and I had to work. It was during these times that I realised I wasn’t alone.
“Other young girls were sent to work in the kitchen with me to prepare the Christmas food and clean and tidy. We all knew we were suffering the same fate – servants to our families while they enjoyed Christmas. When we found the courage to talk quietly between us in the kitchen we shared the same awful experiences. We would always say to each other ‘what we say in here, stays in here’. I sometimes think about what might have happened to the girls and if they got away like I did. I hope they are happy now. I also think about how many more young girls like us are out there, somewhere, in London.”
Finally, one night when the violence became unbearable, Y slipped out the back door and quickly fled into the dark London streets with just a bag of clothes and a small amount of money.
“I had no idea what I was going to do. I begged for money and slept on park benches, all the time I was trying to avoid getting noticed.”
A frightened and dishevelled Y was finally picked up by a caring Nigerian woman who found her sleeping on the floor of a phone box. The woman helped Y get placed into the care of social services and she was eventually taken in by a foster family. “The family arranged for me to go to school for the first time. I did a lot of extra work to catch up with the other kids my age,” says Y. “Living with my foster family was nice, I could look after myself, but I didn’t have to look after other people. For the first time in my life I was getting an education and things were going well for me.”
She was eventually moved into her own accommodation whilst happily studying for her up and coming GCSE exams.
Y’s good fortune proved to be short-lived when in April 2009 her local authority took the surprising decision that she should be ‘age assessed’ to see if she was eligible for the care they were providing her.
Worryingly, many child victims of trafficking are age assessed by Local Authorities as over 18, which means they lose all of their rights to care and education.
"During my age assessment the two social workers, who had never met me before, twisted my answers and manipulated what I said. They did not believe my answers and just rolled their eyes. It was as though they had made their decision already”, explains an angry Y. “They seemed to ignore the view of my school teachers who believed my age. I have explained to the local authority that there may be inconsistencies in my recollection of events as I was never aware of dates and times and was largely illiterate for the majority of my childhood.”
Soon after the age assessment Y was informed by the local authority that it would only pay her accommodation until her GCSE exams finished in June 2009. She was shocked by the decision and was understandably concerned about where she would live.
“Eventually I was put in touch with a charity called The Children’s Legal Centre. They fight for children’s legal rights. They were really understanding and stood by me every step of the way. They gave me the confidence to fight the local authority’s decision in court. It took us a long time to win the case, but without the Children’s Legal Centre I would have never won and I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
Y’s complex case has taken over 2 years to decide that Y was aged 16 and entitled to care and education from her local authority.
"I am going to make the most of my life"
With the renewed support of her local authority Y plans to study child care at college.
“I’m so used to looking after children now and think I could make a really good job of it. I’m also looking to see what volunteering jobs there are for me to do so I can make some new friends and learn some new skills.
“I know there are other girls out there in the same situation as me. I hope they find the courage to run like I did. I think that families are now buying older girls who are trafficked here to work for them. The families who buy them know that the girls would not get support if they left because they would be age assessed by the local authority, found to be over 18 and not entitled to help, so they have to stay there and put up with a miserable life serving other people. The families learn how to work the system quickly.
“When I look back at my life I do get upset and don’t want to keep talking about it, I have changed so much.
“If you met me five years ago I was quiet, I had no opinion, I was not open, didn’t show emotion, didn’t defend myself. Let’s just say, I didn’t know who I was. But now I’m going to make the most of my life. I was one of the lucky ones who got away. Now it’s my time to shine and I am going to shine”.
The Children’s Legal Centre operates a free Child and Family Law Advice Line: 08088 020 008