How Did This 31-Year-Old Aspiring Barrister Become A Victim Of Modern Slavery In Britain?

We are only just beginning to understand the scale of modern slavery in Britain


by Vicky Spratt |
Updated on

‘One day I was ready to run away’ says Ola. We’re sat opposite each other in a North-West London Costa, next to her is a giant pink suitcase. Inside it is papers, bundles and bundles of them. Ola is now a paralegal with aspirations of becoming a barrister; her nails are lacquered shining black and manicured perfectly, her suit makes me feel shabby and her poise is the sort that makes you want to sit up straighter.

Less than ten years ago Ola, now 31, was held against her will because of what we now term modern slavery. Aged 15 or 16 she was trafficked to Britain from Nigeria after her family accepted money for her. She arrived at Heathrow along with three or four other young girls and was then delivered to a Nigerian family in Edgware who kept her from fleeing them by ensuring that she never had any money of her own and lived in constant fear of the British police.

Modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is ‘far more prevalent than previously thought’ according to the National Crime Agency. It is thought that there are tens of thousands of victims.

The United Nations’ International Labour Organisationestimates that 21 million people around the world are currently trapped in some form of modern slavery. In Britain, the Modern Slavery Act came into force in 2015 and, in 2016, the total number of potential victims identified by the government was 4,586.

It’s not so much that modern slavery is on the rise in Britain as that the Home Office is actively trying to tackle the problem and bring perpetrators to justice. The Home Office told The Debrief that in 2016, 3,805 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism ; a 17% increase on the number of referrals in 2015.

Ola was born in Benin City in Nigeria, ‘things started to change towards the end of primary school’ she says. Her parents split up and she moved to live with her uncle in Lagos so that she could make money helping her auntie sell food as her mother could no longer afford to keep her because her father, ‘who now did not want to know’ had been the breadwinner.

While living with her extended family in Lagos Ola attended secondary school but was expected to cook, clean and work for her relatives alongside her studies. ‘The conditions weren’t very nice’ she says before pausing, ‘I always find that when I talk about this my language is terribly politically correct and I censor everything that happened.’ She would do chores before school, after school and then before going to work and after coming back. ‘Even today’ she reflects ‘I always walk so fast. My friends are like “slow down, slow down”, but I can’t…I’m always thinking about getting back at a specific time so nobody is unhappy.’

One day her elder brother came to ‘rescue’ her, or so she thought. She is hazy on the details but believes money changed hands and thinks that her mother was involved. Shortly after this rescue, Ola was taken on a plane to Britain. She was told that if she didn’t go her family would have to pay, she begged her mother not to let her go and hasn’t seen her since.

One flight from Lagos to Heathrow in her mid-teens and here she was, for years, living in Britain and trapped in a live of servitude while Londoners went about their lives all over the same city. Slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1807 and across what was then the British Empire in 1833. 200 years later, it is happening right under our noses. ‘I never had a passport and I never saw a passport’ Ola says ‘I don’t know exactly how it worked but I think she must have bought me in on somebody else’s passport’.

The family who Ola ended up living with initially lived in Enfield, years later they moved to Hertfordshire and Ola moved with them. She cleaned their house, cooked their food and looked after their young children. They worked, both of them were accountants. The banality of this detail is perhaps the most shocking part of the whole story.

The word slavery conjures up physical shackles and violence, while these can be present, the trappings of modern slavery are less visible. What stopped Ola from leaving? How could this possibly happen here in Britain? ‘The best way to explain it’ Ola says ‘is that it’s a community of people ‘I knew some other girls who were in my situation. The one connecting factor was that we all went to the same church with our families. Each of these families had their own girl. Every now and then you’d hear that someone had run away because of ill treatment or bad conditions…but whenever that happened the conditions just became worse for the rest of us. This was their way of keeping us where we were’.

It took years for Ola to feel like she could leave, when she did she ‘hid out’ with one of the other girls from her church who had also fled the family who had been keeping her. ‘She was one of the lucky ones’ Ola says ‘she wasn’t abused’.

Leaving was not easy ‘I had no money of my own’ she recalls ‘one of my jobs was to do the children’s’ hair…I became rather good at it you know. So, she [the woman who kept her] would start taking me to do her friends hair. They would pay…you know…they would pay and she would keep the money. I also had a mobile phone in it but I couldn’t use it to make calls out, it was only for them to call me and see where I was.’

Whilst living with this family Ola was also beaten. Her role, she says, was what is colloquially called ‘house girl' in Nigeria, she did chores and looked after the family’s daughter who was 6 months old when she first arrived in their home. How would she describe her relationship with the family? ‘It was like standing on an egg that could crack at any minute’ she reflects ‘subconsciously I had become accustomed to [my situation] and these days…I find…even though I’ve gone through therapy there are remnants of it that follow me’. Like what? ‘I am very jumpy’ she says ‘and that stems from the fact that I was never a part of the family, and I knew that. In the house, we lived in there was a boiler room and that was where my things were. I wasn’t allowed to eat at the table, I had to eat in the kitchen. What I ate, did, who I spoke to…it was all monitored. I couldn’t do anything wrong because I would get physical lashings for that.’

Ola says she was threatened almost every day, depending on what she was supposed to done. This ranged from the family not liking how she had cooked something to not doing the dishes properly. In every aspect of her life she was threatened physically and emotionally, coerced and manipulated into believing that leaving would cause her even more harm than staying. ‘I recall in the early days’ she says, looking down through her glasses at the table between us ‘that the child was super-duper squirmy. As babies are. She would just flick herself around. In going back and forth she had bruised herself ever so slightly. This was not something I had done, it was just a child being a child. I was beaten. So, hard. So badly. I remember thinking “please just go a bit further so I can go and meet my heavenly father and be done with this”.’

When Ola did eventually flee from the family who had been involved in trafficking her to Britain in 2012, the Modern Slavery Act did not exist. There was no obvious recourse for and, she says, even if there had been she wouldn’t have known about it anyway. ‘These days’ she says ‘I feel like I’m older than I really am. I feel like I’ve lived ten lives. Physically, mentally and emotionally then it was just all drained. I got to a point where…I just couldn’t. The spirit, the will in me had died. There was nothing to lose. I literally…it was all gone’.

When she left, Ola says ‘even though I’d lived in this country for many years I didn’t know anything or how to go about anything’. Did she have a sense that what had happened to her was illegal? ‘At the time…I had a vague idea that it was but one of the things she would always say to me was “if you run away what the police will do is come after you and, when the police get to you will be detained, then you will be deported and your family will have to pay the deportation fee”.’ Ola’s voice trembles slightly, almost inaudibly, as she says this, ‘maybe it sounds silly but I wouldn’t have been able to read up on the law about this. I wouldn’t have known where to look in the library’. Being a lawyer now, Ola remarks ‘and…even then…Hertfordshire library probably wouldn’t’ have had any books about this! I sort of knew I was here illegally and I didn’t know it was through no fault of my own so I didn’t run. I didn’t want to go to prison but I had nobody to speak to – no friends and no family’.

And, she says, ‘a part of me hated my family for what they had done…and perhaps still does…but I still didn’t like the thought of them having to pay debt, in pounds, for me to be deported…this is what I was told would happen, so there were different elements…I just couldn’t. I knew that what they were doing to me wasn’t right but I didn’t know what the repercussions for me…for my family would have been’.

I ask Ola if she has spoken to her family since she fled? Her hands start to shake and she is quiet. ‘I’m sorry, my hands are shaking’, she looks up and composes herself before going on to speak clearly….’I have made contact but…look…from a basic moral or human stance…because I have been through so much…it does scar you so it would be better that I hadn’t had to go through it in the first place. So, for me, one human being treating another human being as an object is not right. There is no major psychological element of it, there is no easily identifiable reason it is just not right. It cannot be justified in any way. So, now, I am looking at it like that. Morally. I am talking about it because I have been forced to live a life that I would not wish on anybody and I know it was not just be going through it. I think to myself, if I was in that situation, if the statistics are right it is a rampant problem and we have to do something’.

Awareness of modern slavery does seem to be rising, in part thanks to women like Ola speaking out about their experiences, but, it’s clear that we are only just beginning to understand the scale of this problem in Britain. We now, at least, have the Modern Slavery Act and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has recently made £8.5 million worth of funding available for policing aimed at targeting this problem. Sadly, Ola’s story is far from unique. In 2016 potential victims referred to the NRM in the UK came from 108 countries of origin around the world.

Rudd told The Debrief ‘Modern slavery is a barbaric crime that, tragically, destroys the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society’. She said, of the Modern Slavery Act she said ‘we know though that legislation by itself isn’t enough and we continue to work with police and stakeholders like AFRUCA to ensure more victims are identified and get the help they need, while those who carry out these horrendous crimes are brought to justice.’

‘Cases like Ola’s are a stark reminder that we must never rest in our efforts to prevent the enslavement of innocent people and we must do all we can to fight this abhorrent crime.’

As we say goodbye I ask Ola what she’s got planned for the rest of her evening. She extends the handle of her suitcase and says ‘I’m going back to the office. We’ve got a big case on and I need to keep proving myself if I’m ever going to get to the bar. One day. We’ll keep trying. We’ll get there.’

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**Follow Vicky on Twitter **@Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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