The forced labour GIFT box which was located in Upper Street, Islington, London.

Traffic Problems…

14th February 2014

Many busy mums resort to writing their ‘to do’ list in eyeliner on the back of an old envelope, but for one mother on a mission, it is the humble loo roll that has become her unlikely aide-memoire.

Ruth Dearnley, CEO of Stop The Traffik

Mother of two teenagers, 47-year-old Ruth Dearnley from Wendover is CEO of Stop The Traffik, the charity that raises awareness of those around the world who find themselves ‘trafficked’: sold to pimps, individuals and gang masters as prostitutes or slave labourers, sometimes disappearing for years before they elude their captors, and often subjected to unimaginable cruelty.

The trade in human beings is beyond harrowing to hear about and far too easy to doubt; in order to get her message across to an often unbelieving British public, Mrs Dearnley spent much of 2012 handing out loo rolls to politicians and women’s groups, to remind them of the number of young girls who fall prey to traffickers. The loo rolls represented Stop the Traffik’s campaign to raise money for girls’ lavatories in schools throughout India.

“Girls with little or no education are 90% more vulnerable to trafficking than those who attended school, yet many girls drop out of education once they reach puberty, simply because their schools have no girls’ toilets,” Dearnley explains.
However, she is also keen to stress that trafficking is not just a ‘foreign’ problem, pointing out that last year in Britain, where we like to believe slavery ceased after the Abolition Act of 1833, some 2,000 people were found to be being held against their will for financial gain.

A London doctor was imprisoned for enslaving her ‘housekeeper’ and another London woman was convicted of forcing teenage pupils at her children’s school to recruit younger girls for sex sessions in a hotel, an enterprise which earned her £30,000 per night.

Typically, victims of trafficking – “men, women, old, young and from any country or culture” – are stripped of their ID, their possessions, their money and their dignity and forced, sometimes for years on end, into cruel and degrading forms of servitude and criminality. “They present as criminals,” says Dearnley, “but actually, they are victims of a creative and highly orchestrated system of business.”

“Trafficking, is” she adds, “the fastest growing criminal business in the world.”

Stop the Traffik was founded in 2006 by former Songs of Praise presenter Steve Chalke (now an anti-trafficking adviser to the UN). It aims to end human trafficking – the buying and selling of people for forced street crime, slave labour, sexual exploitation or for their organs – by, quite simply, telling us where and how this crime is perpetrated, and by reminding us that it can happen right under our noses.

“The biggest threat to traffickers is when people become aware of what is going on, on their doorstep,” Dearnley says.
The majority of adults trafficked into Britain come from Eastern Europe, with child victims most likely to arrive from Vietnam, Nigeria, Slovakia and Romania. They are often poor or of below average intelligence, sometimes escaping violence and abuse at home; often, in the case of the Romanians, raised in orphanages.

Shockingly, British nationals make up the seventh largest group of victims and the fourth largest group of child victims, with increasing numbers being trafficked internally (cheaper to transport).

A recent case involved a group of British men trafficked to Scandinavia as slave labourers. In 2012, British woman Sophie Hayes published Trafficked, her shocking account of being invited by her boyfriend for a weekend in Italy, where he sold her on the streets.

Official figures indicate that around 54% of victims in the UK are female and 69% are adults. Thirty-one per cent are subjected to sexual abuse; 22% used for forced labour; 17% for forced criminality; 11% for domestic servitude. An estimated 24% of victims found in Britain in 2012 were children.

Seven-year-old Anna from Romania is one such child. At the age of four, she was brought to London by ‘friends’, who promised her parents a good education for her here, even though Anna spoke no English. Once she arrived, she was kept as a domestic slave for a year by a Romanian family in a house in North London. When she was rescued, she was malnourished, her teeth were rotten and she possessed only the clothes she was wearing.

Fellow Romanian André, a 53-year-old electrician, believed he had been offered a legitimate job on a London building site. Instead, he was made to live in a shed for two years and forced to steal scrap metal. When he sneaked into the house one evening to find food, his punishment was to be raped by his three captors.

Stop The Traffik’s loo roll campaign in 2012 proved timely; the recent case of men held captive, some for over a decade, by traffickers in Leighton Buzzard, was still fresh in people’s minds. Dearnley gave 30 local radio interviews about the case, and in each one met with surprise that this grisly trade goes on at home.

At the same time, the Metropolitan Police Human Exploitation & Organised Crime unit unearthed two separate plots to traffick girls and women into London during the Olympic Games to work as prostitutes ‘servicing’ the construction workers and the tourists.

Small brothels were set up in perfectly ordinary-looking houses near the sports stadia and although police intervention stopped these two gangs from plying their trade, there is every likelihood that many women slipped under the radar.

Stop The Traffik’s imaginative response to potential trafficking was to join forces with the UN to persuade London Mayor Boris Johnson to put up 40 eye-catching information kiosks at popular spots across the capital during the Games.

These GIFT boxes (Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking), which can now be seen in different locations around the country, give unsuspecting passers-by a taste of just how easy it is to be duped by traffickers’ smooth patter, along with a brief experience of incarceration. You’re lured into the box, which could be taken for a walk-in piece of public art, by its attractive gift wrappings and its invitation to ‘see the world and earn good money’, only to find yourself held in a metal ‘cell’, measuring 7ft x 7ft, with images and facts about trafficking on the walls. Once you’re inside, it is impossible to get out without help.

The aim behind the GIFT boxes – indeed, behind all of Stop the Traffik’s efforts – is to explain the three stages of trafficking: deception, dislocation and exploitation.

The deception with which the process begins is sophisticated, usually involving the promise of a better life. The victims and their families are persuaded that they have a genuine job offer, which is often typed up on headed stationery. In one case in India, ‘job agencies’ presented girls with glossy brochures showing houses with swimming-pools. A very plausible advertisement which appeared recently in mainstream newspapers in Britain, the States and Europe, asking for ice-cream sellers (‘no experience needed’) to work for a ‘family business’, turned out to be bogus.

The next stage, dislocation, is designed to disorientate the victim, who may be trafficked from their continent, country or community, even from one side of their street to another. Once trapped, they are routinely coerced, beaten, often literally, into submission, and intimidated by threats against their family if they don’t co-operate. In extreme cases, women are ‘initiated’ into prostitution by acts of witchcraft too hideous to describe here.

Finally, the victim will be exploited for whatever their ‘minder’ considers most lucrative: sex, farm and construction work, cannabis cultivation, street crime and begging, leaflet deliveries, kitchen duties, even for their organs.

So how can we spot the traffic in our midst? Last year, three women were found after having been kept for 30 years in a house in Brixton. When they were rescued, a neighbour remembered having seen a forlorn face at a window and a hand-written sign; if only the neighbour had acted on her curiosity and alerted the police, the women might have been freed years earlier.

Closer to home, an Indian woman in her forties was kept as a domestic slave in Moor Park, on the false promise that her children’s education would be paid for back home. She was made to sleep underneath the sink and was regularly raped by the man of the house. When she was ‘disobedient’, she was denied food or beaten with an electric plug. During her four years in the UK, she was passed between three families. Surely someone must have seen or heard something?

It’s easy to not want to interfere, to not want to know, but when pungent smells are coming out of a house and the windows are constantly covered in condensation, doesn’t anyone stop to ask themselves what the pale and skinny Vietnamese lad, who comes and goes at strange times, might be growing in there?

Dearnley and her colleagues at Stop The Traffik work closely with the Met’s Human Exploitation & Organised Crime unit, which she praises for its victim-led approach and also for the success of its rehabilitation programme. Given what some of the victims have suffered, it is not surprising that their recovery can take two years.

Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, who runs the unit, says his team are seeing more and more successful prosecutions, but that, as a society, we still need to wise-up about trafficking. “People don’t realise that these people are modern day slaves,” he says. “Members of the local community often realise that something suspicious is going on and we encourage them to report it. Someone living in a shed should arouse suspicion, or an African child taking other children to school.

He pauses. “I don’t know how we can tolerate people coming here, subjected to violence and enormous control, with no human rights, when [people] have the money to pay better.”

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