Child trafficking and slavery in the UK: Debbie Ariyo reports

The two brothers walked through our office doors at Afruca – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. Sobbing, they recounted details of their terrible experiences spanning many years at the hands of various relatives to whom they were sent as children for a “better life” by their mother following the death of their father in Nigeria. They ended up as domestic slaves.

Now in their mid-twenties, the two young men have spent the bulk of their lives in the UK in abject penury. Denied the opportunity of a decent education, they are now homeless, jobless and unable to produce any documentation as proof of their identities. Effectively, they are in limbo, living from hand to mouth, not sure of their next meal or their next bed for the night. These two young men are part of a growing underclass of young people trafficked into the UK as child slaves.

Over the past six months, as a result of a media campaign ran by Afruca on African satellite TV stations, we have continued to receive young people who have tales of woe similar to the two brothers. We have supported at least 15 young people in various ways since January 2007 to enable them deal with the impact of trafficking and exploitation so they can move on with their lives. While all their stories are different, their experiences of abuse and exploitation as domestic slaves are very similar. More and more young people are coming to us for help, evidence of the growing phenomenon of child domestic slavery in this country.

Our experience is supported by recent research into child trafficking. A recent report produced by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) identified 330 victims of trafficking, a third of them coming from different African countries with most of them destined for domestic slavery. This is corroborated by the results of another study on child trafficking in the north of England by ECPAT UK.

Nigerian problem?

Without wishing to stigmatise any community, it is pertinent to add that all the 15 victims mentioned above, including the two brothers, are of Nigerian origin. In the same vein, all the victims of domestic slavery identified in the two research reports referred to above are also all from Nigeria. As a Nigerian myself, this fact is quite disconcerting. Why are Nigerian children being trafficked into the UK for domestic slavery?

The practice of using children for domestic servitude is undoubtedly a very common phenomenon in Nigeria itself. According to local non-governmental organisations campaigning against this practice, almost every middle class household employs domestic servants many of whom are children. Due to the growing poverty level, the widening gap between rich and poor Nigerians, many parents are wont to give their children to better off relatives in the belief that they will be well looked after and given an opportunity of either going to school or learning a vocation. However, most of these children end up being used as slaves and servants.

Yet the idea of giving children away to relatives is nothing new or strange in many African countries. The practice of fostering, where children are given to relatives to look after is not an act borne out of cruelty or ignorance. In the past, this system has afforded many children from poor backgrounds the opportunity of a good education leading to a prosperous future. The notion that it takes a village to raise a child meant that the extended family were responsible for ensuring children had access to a decent life which their poor parents were unable to give them. Unfortunately, this system of community support has been abused by unscrupulous individuals with ulterior motives. The sad case of Victoria Climbié, the Ivorien girl trafficked into the UK and tortured to death by her relative comes to mind here.

The estimated two million Nigerians here are probably the most rooted nationals from any African country in the UK, bearing in mind that many have been living or visiting the country since the 1960s and 1970s. With a growing middle class population, it is not surprising that the practice of fostering is equally taking hold here as well. Unfortunately, however, many children and their parents have been deceived into coming to the UK for a so-called better life and a good education. Instead, these children end up being used as slaves, to look after the families of their exploiters and cater for their every need. Many have been subjected to a life of suffering, multiple abuse, excessive child labour and harm. Instead of the better life and the good education promised, only a childhood of exploitation awaits.

The physical abuse experienced in many cases result in long-term poor health. Some of the victims we worked with at Afruca were also sexually abused by their exploiters. Most terrible of all is the rupture with their own families. A young girl we supported was brought into the UK at the age of nine years. Now at the age of 19 she has never been in touch with any member of her immediate family as she was prevented from doing so by her exploiters. It is doubtful whether she will ever be able to locate them.

Denial of right to family life

This broken family link, the denial of rights to a decent family life, is a serious form of emotional abuse. Added to the lack of parental care given by the exploiters, many child victims exist in an emotional vacuum, with no love, no affection, and no attention ever paid to them. The deceit, abuse and exploitation experienced at the hands of those they expected to care for them and help them achieve a better life result in a deep emotional and psychological scarring. In fact, many of the victims who come to us have revealed that at one time or another, they either attempted suicide or had many suicidal thoughts.

Yet the implications of their experiences do not end with their slavery. Every single young person we have been in contact with has a serious problem proving their true identity. In many instances, traffickers employ false identities in order to be able to procure travel documents to bring their child victims into the country. Now as adults, many of them have no way of ascertaining their true names, age and date of birth because authentic documentation is unobtainable.

One consequence is that young people are disbelieved by the authorities when they attempt to regularise their status in the UK and they cannot get jobs. Many victims of trafficking do come to the attention of different agencies – be it social services, schools, doctors and others. But practitioners are often unable to identify the indicators of abuse and exploitation and to safeguard the young people. At least one victim we worked with had run away to seek help and support from her local social services department. Unfortunately, not only was she denied any form of help, she was reprimanded for running away from home and was returned to her exploiters.

No prosecutions

No one has ever been prosecuted here for child domestic slavery. Many of the victims we have worked with have taken the steps to report their cases although to date no action has been taken. Yet the UK government is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, articles 3 and 4 of which clearly highlight the rights of people not to be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or to be held in slavery or servitude. Since the government is obliged to protect these rights, it is a mystery that no one has ever been prosecuted.

Until someone is prosecuted, this practice will continue unabated. The government has got a policy in the form of its National Action Plan on Human Trafficking, but it is not enough. Not only should their exploiters be made to face the music, but victims need to be given the support and assistance they require to enable them to prosecute their exploiters and seek compensation for their lost childhood.

It is also imperative that action is taken to raise awareness in source countries such as Nigeria about the implications of handing children over to a “better life”. Unless everyone is aware of the facts, the endless stream of children looking for a better life will continue unabated.

Debbie Ariyo is Founder and Executive Director of AFRUCA – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, an organisation promoting the rights and welfare of African children in the UK.

This article appeared in the 13 December issue under the headline “The 21st century slaves here in the UK”

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