'She was thin as a rake, her teeth had been knocked out': Meet the victims of Britain's modern slave trade

·14 min read
Bakhita House is a refuge run for the past seven years by Caritas Westminster, part of the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster - Elena Heatherwick
Bakhita House is a refuge run for the past seven years by Caritas Westminster, part of the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster - Elena Heatherwick

Carmen* is returning home to southern Europe. It is almost two years since this highly skilled pattern-cutter came to England, with only the clothes on her back, for what she had been told was a well-paid three-day job.

‘Now I have enough for five suitcases,’ she says, excited at the prospect of seeing her grown-up daughter and grandchild again. ‘I’m happy to be going, but my heart is divided in half, because now I have a family here.’

At first glance you might conclude that voluble, 40-something Carmen – black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose, curly hair tied in an untidy bun – has had a ball in England. After all, she has been living for the past year in the large, bright, comfortable, fashionably decorated house in a leafy part of London that she shares with a group of other women, who are all gathered around her as she packs.

The reality, though, is sobering. Carmen and her friends are victims of modern slavery, a phrase that has become familiar since a landmark act was passed in 2015 cracking down on those who bring people to this country and force them to work as slaves in the sex industry, as domestics and – as in the case of Carmen – in factories.

Bakhita House offers counselling and healing support including yoga, art, reflexology and gardening - Elena Heatherwick
Bakhita House offers counselling and healing support including yoga, art, reflexology and gardening - Elena Heatherwick

Yet the heartbreaking first-hand stories of the devastated lives it describes are seldom heard – although Mo Farah’s recent revelations about how he ended up in the UK have begun to shatter that silence.

Bakhita House is a refuge run for the past seven years by Caritas Westminster (part of the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster) for women like Carmen, regardless of creed. And today some of them have agreed for the first time to talk openly, on condition that their identities and the location of their safe house are disguised: the traffickers who have exploited these women remain eager to find them and silence them.

A prisoner in plain sight

Carmen was recruited by a clothes factory in the East Midlands, for which she had done some freelance work from her home in Spain. When she arrived, barely able to speak a few words of English but expecting the best due to her natural optimism, the factory owners forcibly took away her phone and her money. They then kept her prisoner in their building, making her work all hours of the day and night.

‘I was afraid of them,’ she tells me. ‘All they gave me to eat was bread.’ Her exuberance drains away and her eyes fill with tears. She crumples back on to a deep, cushion-strewn orange sofa in the television room at Bakhita House and reveals the trauma that continues to haunt her.

She was held captive in the factory for two months, ‘perhaps three’, too afraid even to talk to other workers, some of whom were in the same situation, although others may have been locals working there legitimately but out of fear turning a blind eye to the plight of the strangers in their midst on the shop floor. Eventually, she managed to get her hands on a phone left momentarily unguarded. She had no English to summon help herself, but she rang a nephew in London whose number she had memorised.

Her family back home had been driven crazy with worry by her long silence. And without the money she had come to England to earn, her daughter and grandchild were being evicted from their home because they couldn’t pay the rent.

Her nephew contacted an anti-slavery charity, which then involved the police, who finally liberated Carmen.

While her jailers were investigated and prosecution considered, she was brought – traumatised – to Bakhita House. It sits outside the Government’s network of refuges for victims of trafficking, most of which have strict limits on how long those referred to them can stay.

‘We are victim-centred, not time-centred,’ explains Karen Anstiss, who served for 31 years in the Metropolitan Police, latterly in the human trafficking team, before becoming Bakhita House’s first manager when it opened in 2015.

House manager Karen Anstiss - Elena Heatherwick
House manager Karen Anstiss - Elena Heatherwick

A calming, reassuring presence, she sits by Carmen on the sofa. Thanks to lessons arranged by Anstiss, Carmen explains, her English has improved since she arrived here, in October 2020. So, too, has her state of mind. ‘When I came, my self-esteem was very low. I didn’t want to live in this moment. I thought it was my fault, that I had provoked it, that I was the cause of all of it. I wanted so much not to wake up again.’

It didn’t help that the police decided not to go ahead with prosecution, deeming her insufficiently robust as a witness. It is hard to understand why, on the evidence of the woman before my eyes.

‘At first I was very angry. I wanted to bring a vendetta against the people who exploited me. But as I spent more time in the house I relaxed, and I forgot little by little.’ Bakhita House has, she says without drama, saved her life.

Up to 12 women can live at Bakhita House, which offers counselling and healing support including yoga, art, reflexology and gardening, plus music and drama therapy. Each ‘guest’, as they are termed, is helped to devise her own plan covering general welfare, immigration, housing, sexual health, diet – and police liaison, if needed. When they are ready to face it, they can go out for education and training.

Carmen has even been working part-time in a local supermarket. Her small earnings were not enough to pay her daughter’s rent arrears, but Anstiss and Anna Ringler, a former religious sister who works alongside her and the house’s four full-time support workers, managed to resolve that situation and so relieve some of the pressure.

Carmen turns to look at Anstiss and takes her hands. ‘These,’ she says, ‘are the hands that have taken my hands so I can swim. I was drowning. They have taken hold of me and held me safe, like a lifebelt. I didn’t like living when I came here. I felt I had no value. If I needed to cry, they cried with me. If I needed to speak, they listened. If I needed to stay silent, they sat with me in silence.’

‘And when you needed to have fun,’ adds Anstiss, ‘we had fun.’ She shows me photographs of a fashion show featuring the other guests, which Carmen organised with donated clothes.

Modern slavery in Britain today

Recent Home Office statistics show a continuing and steep rise in referrals to the National Crime Agency of potential victims of modern slavery. In 2021 they were at 12,727, the highest number since figures were first collected in 2009 – and up by 20 per cent on the previous year. Particularly disturbing is the increase in the numbers of victims in plain sight – in factories, nail bars, car washes, construction sites or agriculture, where vulnerable, friendless people with no English are forced to work for almost nothing.

Over the past seven years, 158 women from 46 countries have lived in Bakhita House. It grew out of a joint project between the Catholic Church, the Metropolitan Police and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, brought together under the auspices of the Rome-based Santa Marta Group, launched by Pope Francis to raise awareness of the estimated 40 million victims of modern slavery around the globe.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, a central figure in the scheme, agreed to help raise the £430,000 needed each year to run Bakhita House. It is named after Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese girl sold into slavery in the 19th century, who, by the time she was freed, had 144 scars on her body as a result of her ill treatment. She went on to become a nun. After her death she was declared a saint.

Therapeutic activities are part of life at Bakhita House - Elena Heatherwick
Therapeutic activities are part of life at Bakhita House - Elena Heatherwick

Pictures of her, though, are the only religious images in the house. All faiths and none are welcome here. Its clean, bright white walls are decorated with paintings (most by guests) in bold colours, all put together by Ringler, which create an overall atmosphere of psychological and emotional well-being. ‘Anna is elegant,’ Carmen tells me, ‘and serious. And crazy. Karen is the manager, and very kind, and crazy.’

In the large sitting room next door, some of the other guests, one with her 20-month-old son in tow, are gathering for a sewing and craft session. Everyone here carries an enormous weight of private misery, but over months and years they support each other and are supported to find everyday joy in life once more.

A peaceful haven, full of beauty

Among them is Cristina. She and Carmen are firm friends, even though their personalities couldn’t be more different. Carmen is all animation. Cristina is stillness, the fringe of her bobbed hair slipping down to cover her wary eyes.

‘When she came here two years ago,’ recalls Anstiss, ‘she was as thin as a rake. Her teeth had been knocked out. She had a hood over her face and wouldn’t look up. For a long time she was very, very unwell.’

As a youngster Cristina had been forced into street prostitution in her native Romania. At some stage – she is now in her mid-30s – she was trafficked through various European countries to a northern English city where eventually, in utter despair, she approached someone from a charity supporting street workers. She was taken to the police, who brought her to Bakhita House.

Her English – non-existent when she arrived but improving so much that she has recently begun volunteering in a charity shop – isn’t yet quite up to the painful details of her past. So we head to the garden, Cristina’s favourite place, with one of the support workers, who speaks Romanian.

It is large, walled and full of beauty. As we step outside, she visibly lightens, and leads me on a tour of the tomato plants and herbs that keep the house supplied during the summer. By working with the soil, she says, she has got back some of her own life. ‘I don’t know if it is therapy,’ she explains through her translator, ‘but I like putting the plant in the pot, and watching it grow. I observe the bulbs.’

The garden is a peaceful haven for the women - Elena Heatherwick
The garden is a peaceful haven for the women - Elena Heatherwick

She leads me back inside and up the staircase to her attic room. The steps and windowsills are lined with pots of chilli plants thriving in the sunlight that floods in. Tenderly she picks off the dead leaves so others can grow.

It took a whole year – well beyond the time limit for stays in Government-funded homes for trafficked women – before Cristina felt confident to leave the sanctuary of the house and garden, even accompanied by a support worker. The first thing she wanted to do was to set up a bank account with the £40 that each guest is given weekly as spending money. ‘It was quite emotional for me,’ she says. ‘I had never before had control of my own money, to use it for my own needs.’

When Anstiss subsequently took her to the Romanian consulate to pick up her passport, it was another step on her journey to taking back possession of her destiny. The traffickers had kept hold of her documents. ‘When they handed her the passport,’ Anstiss recalls, ‘she leapt into my arms. She held me so tight I could hardly breathe.’

Cristina has no plans to go back to Romania. I ask if she has family there. She looks away sharply and doesn’t answer. Eventually she composes herself and shakes her head. I learn afterwards that while working the streets there, she gave birth to children who were then snatched away by her minders and are now lost to her.

Over lunch in the communal dining room – the guests take turns to cook for each other – Anstiss and Ringler describe how they cope when hearing daily of such horrors. ‘I try to focus on their strength and their progress, on how they move forward,’ says Ringler, but then confides that she has regular therapy sessions herself to keep from buckling.

For her part, Anstiss says she relies on something she learnt early on in her career in the Met, when she had to interview a rape victim. ‘I was with a nine-year-old girl with a mental age of six. And we both cried. She cried because she was scared witless, and I cried because I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing. I thought, “I can’t help if I don’t toughen up.” And the most important thing to do is help.’

Her outer armour of toughness is, however, just that. ‘Most of all,’ she says, ‘I feel sad, sad that this never ends, sad that humans continue to be so cruel.’

Helpless, vulnerable and in desperation

Cristina has given evidence in the trial of the traffickers who abused her. ‘At Bakhita House,’ she tells me, ‘it was the first time I felt listened to. It was the first time I could trust. And drama therapy helped me. It taught me to put my hand on my heart, and to use my inner power. So I wanted them to know I am strong. That I am stronger.’ The men were jailed.

Others, though, feel our laws have failed them. Maria-Clara, a 41-year-old Brazilian who has lived in Bakhita House for more than a year, was coercively controlled and kept as a domestic slave by a couple in London for three years. When she summoned up the courage to escape, fearful of recapture and deeply agitated, she ran up to the first police officer she saw in the street. ‘I had been told that British policemen were to be trusted. Not like in Brazil.’

Unsettled by her erratic behaviour and unable to understand what she was saying, he tried to handcuff her. When she arrived at Bakhita House, she was facing charges for assaulting a police officer. It took Anstiss a long time to clear that up. Maria-Clara is still waiting in the hope that the real criminals will face justice.

Cristina, trafficked and forced into sex work, has lived at Bakhita House for two years - Elena Heatherwick
Cristina, trafficked and forced into sex work, has lived at Bakhita House for two years - Elena Heatherwick

And it will be longer still, she says, before the mental trauma of what happened to her can be properly processed in her head.

At home, she had been a PE teacher in a school. She came to the UK in search of a better life but with no work visa and not a word of English – hard to believe, as she now speaks it fluently, taking lessons most days.

She was helpless and vulnerable, and in desperation, she ended up working for a couple who promised to sort out her visa if she kept house for them. ‘They weren’t violent with me, but they controlled my mind. I never had time. I had no place to sleep and I was always working. I was just surviving,’ she recalls. The visa didn’t materialise and any pay she received was a pittance.

That she fell into such a trap has devastated her confidence, but she is, she says, slowly improving. ‘Now I have opportunities to look after myself. I want to slow down. I was hyperactive when I came here. I’ve done a lot of work on my mind. To have a different mentality. I don’t want to regress.’

To be in a safe place is one part of escaping from modern slavery, but rediscovering an inner freedom is, the team at Bakhita House believe, just as important. ‘They come here, sometimes very, very broken,’ says Anstiss. ‘They stay with us. And then they go on to something better.’

About half keep in touch after they leave. Roughly a third of guests decide freely to return to their home country. Bakhita House makes sure that they will be supported there and cannot fall again into the hands of traffickers. The majority go on to more permanent accommodation in the UK.

For Maria-Clara, it is too soon to know her future, although she feels strong enough to be back in touch with her family in Brazil. Cristina is clear that she can never go back to Romania. Her dream, she says, ‘is to have a garden and a house and work in a factory’.

For her part, Carmen is confident that she will cope when she returns to Spain. Her daughter is now working, so she will no longer be the family’s only breadwinner. Instead, she will be looking after her grandchild. ‘I feel,’ she says, ‘that Bakhita House has given me a second opportunity at life.’

*Names of the guests at Bakhita House have been changed. To donate, see rcdow.org.uk/donations/bakhita-house