“A promise of a better life became a death sentence”: more and more migrants are modern slaves in the United Kingdom

When Timi Pepple arrived in the United Kingdom from Nigeria and ran out of money after a few weeks, he thought that nobody better than a compatriot to come to his aid.

“I was living in the street, desperate, and at a hairdresser, in South London, they told me there were some Nigerian women, I went there, told them and they immediately offered to help me,” says Pepple.

The plan was put together in days: there was work in Aberdeen, in the north of Scotland, in the house of a man they knew. They helped him with the train ticket and he left there.

“Little did I imagine that this trip would be the beginning of my tragedy,” says the man, his haircut flush with a baseball cap, worried that his face and voice will not be recognized.

Pepple, 28, arrived at a house overcrowded with other young people who, like him, worked for “the boss”. “The boss”, as he was presented, and he had to deliver his documents.

He had to sleep on the floor. By day, clean the house. Then, and until dawn, sell candy and deodorant in the men’s bathroom of a nightclub.

“The boss would come at the end and take all the coins that customers would have given us, one pound or two, sell palettes and perfume, that’s the way business was.”

“And after cleaning the bathrooms, when someone vomited was the worst,” says Pepple, who after two attempts managed to escape the clutches of that “almighty Nigerian poster”, as he calls it, which is now under police investigation.Its history is one of 2,255, the number of modern-day slavery crimes in the United Kingdom recorded by the authorities in the fiscal year 2017. 160% more than the previous year.

The official estimates speak of a number of victims six times greater, about 13,000.

But even for the Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, that figure is “very modest.”

The authorities have looked beyond sexual exploitation to create greater awareness of other growing modern-day slavery

The term modern slavery encompasses sexual exploitation, debt slavery, forced labor, organ trafficking, domestic servitude, human trafficking and other forms of abuse. Law against Modern Slavery in the United Kingdom, 2015

London is a “growing node” of trafficking and forced labor, civil organizations warn.

So much so, that campaigns against labor exploitation have been activated with an impetus and financing never before seen. “It’s everywhere, it happens in front of your eyes”, the posters are addressed to the public.

And most of the victims are foreigners.

International networks

Tempted by lucrative job offers, women and men arrive.

They do not take long to discover the falsehood of the promise: crammed into rooms and houses, locked in warehouses and car washes and beauty salons and construction sites, serving hundreds of clients, for whom their status as a slave goes largely unnoticed.

This happened to José Arias, 29 years old, father of four children. He traveled to London from southern Ecuador with the promise of a job in masonry. I had some experience and a lot of need.

“On my first day, they sent me to clean the bathrooms of an elegant office there in the center.” Baths? I said it was not that I cared, but they had told me something else.

“The intermediate boss, who was with whom he understood me, insisted that it was a temporary matter until a construction site started where they would need hands, but the weeks passed and passed …”

They gave him lodging “in a room with five others, but he did not understand me because nobody spoke Spanish.” They never paid their wages.

“This guy told me ‘do not worry, you do not need money because they still give you food at home.’ I could not do much if I did not know anyone in a strange country.”Like Jose, a growing number of immigrants are “cheated, locked up and trafficked,” says Diane Payne of the anti-trafficking unit of the Salvation Army’s local branch.

This Christian organization coordinates assistance to victims since 2011 and, since then, has seen an increase of 300% in the number of cases.

Modern slaves arrive in the United Kingdom from at least 108 countries.Albania is at the top, with 35% of the total, followed by Nigeria (17%), Vietnam (6%) and India (5%).

Also, China, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Pakistan are among the main countries of origin.

And of Latin Americans, Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico are among the first 80 countries with the highest number of victims



Main countries of origin

  • Albania

  • Nigeria

  • Vietnam

  • India

  • China

Hestia – Report: “Underground Lives: The Reality of Modern Slavery in London”, November 2017

The nationality of the victim will largely dictate its route and destination once they arrive in the United Kingdom, the experts point out.

In Nigeria, the deceptive offer usually includes employment in a beauty salon, a store or a family home. While in Albania, women who are sexually exploited are recruited mostly, gangs in Vietnam target rather orphaned men for various manual tasks.

“It has a common tactic, they get them into debt, giving them a loan for something they need that becomes unplayable in a short time, and then they offer help to get out of debt if they come to the UK to work,” says Payne.




modern slaves in the world

The US $ 155 billion 

is the estimated annual gain of this global slave trade

ILO, 2017

Caught by debts

That happened to Tran Van Nam, Quang Binh fisherman, a province in central Vietnam. When his ship ran aground in 2014, he resorted to “a local mafia” to lend him money to buy another.

A larger vessel that would allow it to increase its productive capacity. More salmon to fish and sell, he thought, would allow him to significantly improve his income. He offered to pay the loan for work hours.

“I worked for them to raise the US $ 20 a day and was returning them. But I could not keep up for long,” said Van Nam the Vietnamese service.

When the payments were spaced, four men visited him at his house. They threatened his family first, then they took him by force. On the other side of the world, as I would discover later.After a first stop in “an Asian country”, Tran Van Nam ended up in the UK, in a DVD packaging warehouse. Days of 20 hours, without pauses or pay.

After an unsuccessful attempt to escape, his captors handed him over to another group that ran an illegal marijuana farm in Southampton, in the south of England.

There things got even worse.

“They used a metal rod to beat me brutally, they also chained me in the afternoons, I lived in a state of constant terror,” says the man, who was arrested after a police raid on the farm.



Cases registered by the National

Crime Agency of the United Kingdom:

51%      48%

women                men

1% transgender

National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom (NCA), 2017

The gangs and cartels dedicated to traffic, the experts point out, are sophisticated machines with the ability to move their victims around the country and through multiple branches of business.

“And it’s mostly men who fall,” says Payne.

“Before the focus was on sexual exploitation, where the victims are mostly women, but now it has been extended to those other types of forced labor, where men are the majority.”

Men’s victim status is also often overlooked, warns a report from the Hestia organization: “Feelings of shame and humiliation often cause men to not report crimes and have less access to help services than men. women”.

This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to being “re-trafficked”: sold or transferred from one slave job to another.”

When I ran away from that house in Aberdeen, I went back to live in the street and that’s when another guy approached me, telling me to go work for him, he promised me that he would be a better boss than the previous one,” says Pepple.

“But no, it was all worse, they beat me until they left me bleeding, my nose, my mouth, my gums … I was terrified but I could not go to the police, ‘if you happen to report us, you will know what it is to have problems’, they threatened me. ”

Pepple confided his ills to a pastor of a nearby church, also a Nigerian, who says he betrayed him. The bosses heard about it and the beating was not long in coming.

He finally managed to escape, reported his case to the Ministry of the Interior and took refuge in one of the safe houses available to victim assistance organizations.

Tran Van Nam also managed to break the circle, lived in several safe houses in different cities and now awaits response from the government to his asylum request.

Arias escaped one morning on his way to work (“I ran for an hour, I just ran without turning my head once”) and hid for a few days in a cheap hostel. A relative in Ecuador bought him a plane ticket to return home.

“That’s it, we’ll see how we feed the family,” he says. ” It was a promise of a better life that became a death sentence, I did not even know that you could fall into slavery or that there were slaves today.”

“I did not feel like I was a slave, I just thought it was hostile and malevolent,” Pepple admits. “In retrospect, now I see that I was being exploited.”

“Life has been very difficult since then, I do not trust my compatriots … I do not trust anybody, really, it’s very hard to continue”.


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