Human trafficking: social workers take a stand

This year marks the bicentenary of the Wilberforce legislation that ended Britain’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Since then, many laws entrenching the rights of human beings to be free have been passed. However, with increasing demand for cheap labour, slavery has re-emerged in a different guise. In Britain today, it is estimated that 80 percent of women working in brothels have been trafficked. Others are trafficked in to work as cleaners, in factories and in fields, with children among the most vulnerable. Fortunately, there are some in social care determined to help trafficked people. Campaigners call these people modern-day abolitionists. Helen McCormack tells some of their stories.

Asmerom Woldegebriel fled Eritrea in 1998 and was granted asylum in the UK. In 2000, he began working for the Refugee Council, monitoring housing. He now works with refugees aged 18 to 24 in London for homelessness charity Centrepoint.

“Front-line workers may well never see those who have been trafficked here and are kept behind closed doors. But we have to think about trafficking in a wider sense.

There is a link between classical slavery and modern trafficking. Slaves were sold to boost the economy. Today, we are still looking for more labour. The reasons why people come are very different, but they are still economic.

Consent is a big issue. Even if the family pay and it is seems voluntary, when people are trafficked they have no say whatsoever where or how it is done. It is up to the traffickers where they are shipped. Children’s ages are often disputed by the Home Office and those decisions are often accepted by social workers. That needs to change.

When a young person has been trafficked, what they experience on the way will stay with them. They will always look older than their real age. If you sleep rough for just one night you can see how your face will age. These children have flown thousands of miles, gone without food, gone without water.

It’s about putting yourself in their shoes. What they have experienced will change how they relate with other human beings. It’s difficult for the young person unless the front-line staff make more effort and give more time.

I don’t think this is about money. It’s about attitude. We need to listen to them.”

Lynne Chitty, 53, helped to set up Britain’s first safe house for trafficked children in 2000 while working for West Sussex Council. It closed in 2004 and she is now a consultant and trainer.

“I had been working as a social worker for West Sussex for 26 years and with trafficked children since 1992 when we set up the safe house. When the council said it was going to close it down, I resigned. It was needed, and I was so angry.

I set up another home. We were getting many calls from social workers suspecting trafficking, but it never went further. It closed after two months. I don’t blame front-line workers for that. I blame managers.

A lot of the African children are told that if they tell anyone what has happened, their families will be killed. Some traffickers use voodoo as a threat.

One social worker told me of a 16-year-old Ghanaian girl who she thought had been trafficked. She was being taken out of her area, prostituted and put back. We later found out she was having sex with five to six men a night. The social worker said, ‘she doesn’t talk to us’. I said, ‘why should she when you are sending her back to be sexually abused every single night? That is why she hasn’t talked to you, because, even though she has told you this, you have not protected her. What is in it for her? It is not going to stop it from happening.’

Would an indigenous child be treated the same way? No. So why her?

There is a lack of awareness, a lack of training, and a lack of will. You will only get someone to speak to you once they feel secure. You have to want to do something about it, you have to care.

I think everybody is just frightened of it. I will make sure another safe house opens.”

Mandy John-Baptiste, 46, has been working with girls at risk of sexual exploitation at NSPCC-funded services BeFree and Street Matters in Whitechapel, east London, since 2002. Both services have seen a large rise in the number of African girls referred.

“A year after I joined, three unaccompanied minors were referred to us. One girl was 15. I had to drive to north London to pick her up from the bed and breakfast in which she had been placed. At that time, unaccompanied minors weren’t given the same level of care as they are now. She was three months pregnant. The place had 1970s decor the woman running it was a racist. The girl was very quiet, very cautious.

She had witnessed her family massacred in Uganda. Only her little brother survived. A family friend took them to an army camp in the mountains. Three months later she was put on a flight to the UK. She said she was like a zombie, that she wouldn’t have cared whether she was dead or alive.

A man took her to a flat in north London and then left. Two other men stayed. She had to sleep on the settee and they would try to have sex with her. One night it got really bad and she fought them off, attacking one of them with a knife.

It is only over the years that I have heard her full story. She went on to the streets and sold sex to survive. After three months, someone took her to the Home Office. Then she came to us.

We have had many girls come here since then. What is most difficult as a practitioner is the complexity. They are all very traumatised and there are lots and lots of needs – immigration, health, HIV.

When I think back over the years I worked in residential care, I wonder how many children have I worked with who were just there, whom we never asked ‘how come you’re here? How come you’re not with a carer? How did you get here?’. These children have a past. But no one ever asked them.”


Slave Britain: The 21st Century Trade in Human Lives, a photographic exhibition to document trafficking and celebrate “modern-day abolitionists” at St Paul’s Cathedral until 29 March.

Contemporary Slavery in the UK

Join the fight

There are several steps social care staff can take if they think someone they work with has been trafficked.

Identify them
If a child is with an adult, do not assume they are a relative. “Children will not come forward to say ‘I have been sexually abused, I have been trafficked’,” says Mandy John-Baptiste, of BeFree and Street Matters. A trafficked child will often be apprehensive about how long they will need to be at a service.

Earn their trust
A young person must have a sense of security before they can develop trust. Consultant Lynne Chitty says: “I tell children, ‘I know that you are not telling me the truth, but I also know that that is not your fault you have been told to make up this story. When you come again, hopefully you will be able to tell me what’s happened to you’. It takes a lot of time.”

● For girls under 18 who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, contact Street Matters/Be Free at
● To engage 18- to 24-year-old refugees, phone 18:59 Centrepoint on 020 7423 6814
● For advice and referrals to the safe house for women sexually exploited through trafficking, call the Poppy Project on 020 7840 7129 or go to
● Lynne Chitty is in talks with The Medaille Trust to open a new safe house for children who have been trafficked. For further details, e-mail her at
● If you think a child or adult is working in forced labour, the charity Kalayaan can advise. Go to or call 020 7243 2942

This article appeared in the 15 March issue under the headline “But wasn’t slavery abolished”

This weeks other feature articles
Profile: Young People’s Substance Misuse Service, Bristol

Birth parents seek out adopted children

Adoption: support for birth parents in Somerset

Independent Living Fund is past its prime, write Bob Hudson and Melanie Henwood


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