If you thought slavery was a thing of the past, think again.


It’s as rife as ever, but just more hidden.

A history of slavery

What is modern-day slavery?

Today, 21 million people are working against their will, trapped in situations they cannot leave.

That’s three in 1,000 people who are deceived and forced to work.

The overwhelming majority – 90 per cent – are exploited by private individuals or enterprises.

The remaining two million people are captured by government forces or rebel groups, and perhaps forced to work in a prison or the military.

Nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide – the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 56 per cent, Africa 18 per cent, Latin America 9 per cent, the Developed Economies and European Union 7 per cent, and the Middle East 3 per cent.source: International Labour Organization

Nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide –
the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 56 per cent, Africa 18 per cent, Latin America 9 per cent, the Developed Economies and European Union 7 per cent, and the Middle East 3 per cent.

source: International Labour Organization

Whatever the intentions, this serious crime happens in every part of the world. Europe is no exception – and neither is the UK.

‘Human trafficking’ or ‘trafficking in persons’ is one way that people end up in slavery. It refers to the movement of a person for exploitation.

Some are transported across the globe, while others don’t even leave their hometown.

This is how trafficking is defined in international law:

“…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

What these words help show is the horrifying relationship between the trafficker and the trafficked: the slave and the boss.

The trafficker may be a stranger, but very often they will be a familiar face – a boyfriend, relative or friend of the family.

Whoever they are, traffickers tend to target the world’s most vulnerable:

> a woman longing to escape a patriarchal society

> a mother struggling to support her family, who agrees to work in the UK to send money back to her children

> a university graduate with few employment options in their country

> someone with learning difficulties who says “yes” to a job offer they don’t fully understand.

They are the easy prey, left on society’s sidelines.

But they are part of a lucrative and nefarious global trade. Traffickers buy and sell these people like goods, as they can fetch large prices.

Incredibly, trafficking generates an estimated $32 billion US dollars a year. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says only the illegal drugs industry makes more money.

“Life is tough, with few jobs. If a man [traffics] just one girl to Europe, he will be paid well and can live a good life.”

Arlinda, Albanian Red Cross

For some traffickers, that’s a lifeline out of hardship too tempting to ignore.


You have heard so much about Europe and always wanted to see it. Now is your chance. Your auntie’s friend says she will take you. You can study there and look after her children.

When you arrive in the UK, you are taken to a house. Someone says your family will be in danger if you try to leave. You have to work for nothing. In fact, they took away everything, including your passport. Conditions are gruesome. The fear is intense.

Everything about your life is controlled. Every day is a fight for survival. Precious little remains of your identity. Your memories of home and family – your mother’s face, your favourite meal – now seem like something you must have dreamt.

Unbelievably, terrifying scenarios like this are the reality for thousands of trafficked people in the UK.

Yes, that’s here in the UK – and the numbers are rising.

A trafficked person could live near you. And here are some facts about them that might surprise you.

No ‘typical’ victim

NOT just women

Actually, there’s almost an even split. Globally, 45 per cent of trafficked people in forced labour are men and boys.

NOT just adults

Around a quarter of all trafficked people in the world are under 18. When you look at a big figure like 21 million, that is a lot of young people in dreadful conditions they cannot escape.

NOT just from other countries

British-born people can be internally trafficked. The National Crime Agency says the UK comes in at number six for the top countries of origin – that’s up 46 per cent from the previous year.

NOT just prostitution

Although a very distressing reality, forced sexual exploitation makes up 22 per cent of global trafficking cases. The majority of people are forced into other forms of labour.

That means they could be working on your high street or washing your car every month.

For instance – next time you’re having your nails done, spend a little time getting to know your manicurist.

The British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology admits: “Human trafficking is a problem in the beauty industry, especially in seemingly legitimate nail bars and other businesses that are in reality being used as fronts for brothels.”

Meanwhile, a group of Lithuanian men recently claimed they were trafficked to work on farms producing eggs for high-street brands. The group have taken legal action in what is the first case of a UK company being taken to court for claims relating to modern slavery. At the time of writing, the verdict is yet to be delivered.

Of course, not everyone who works in a nail bar, farm or car wash has been trafficked. But the shocking truth is that they could be, and you might not even know it.

NOT just for work or sex

Although the numbers are smaller, some people are trafficked for different reasons. For example, some may have their organs removed and sold. Others are kept as domestic slaves.

NOT the same as smuggling

A person pays a smuggler to get them to an agreed destination that crosses an international border. It’s a commercial deal that ends on arrival. Once they get there, the person can decide what to do or where to go next. This is the situation for many of the refugees currently crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

A trafficked person does not necessarily cross any borders. They do not have any choice over what happens next. They are exploited, kept under someone’s control. They often do not realise this until they arrive at their destination.

NEVER legal

People often pay for their travel to the UK. Usually, the amount they owe will be well beyond what they can afford. In other words, they are in debt to their trafficker, and the debt keeps growing.

Penniless and tricked, they are forced to pay it back by working for nothing – sometimes for years.

Even if they have signed a contract to that effect, this situation is completely illegal under UK law.

Again, treating someone in this way is about force and the abuse of power.

Whether a person has been locked in a cellar or made to stand behind a till, what matters is they are too petrified to speak out.


Some people do make it out of this stranglehold.

Someone may find them, or they may get the opportunity to run away.

In the UK, local police sometimes find dozens of people inside a single property. They have often been mistreated and need urgent care – but they have survived the nightmare.

But how do you go back to normality after being treated that way?

The survivors have some stomach-turning tales to tell.

Eleven years a slave

“I tried to shout for help, but nobody could hear me. We were kept for many years. When you’re inside there you don’t know if it’s day or night. The only thing I always knew is I’m naked, I’m being hurt. Nobody can help me because I don’t know where I am.”

Miana was abducted from her family in Somalia when she was just 14. She was held in captivity for 11 long years.

She remembers little of her time in captivity. All she knows is that she lived inside a boat for a very long time.

One day, she ‘woke up’ in a hospital in Aberdeen. It’s then that she knew her life could finally start over.

The man who sailed to freedom

“I have been serving others since I was born, in exchange for torture of many kinds – and never a thank you. Today, I can help others because I decide to, and so I feel useful.”

Salif sailed to Italy’s shores just one year ago. He escaped from Mali.

He was born into slavery and expected to die a slave – marked even in death by the shackles of bondage. But he got away.

Salif travelled through Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya. After a terrifying and dangerous journey, he arrived in Sicily with lowered eyes and just the rags he had travelled in.

Twelve months later, Salif is a volunteer with the Italian Red Cross. The 18-year-old is full of passion and his Italian is improving. He is now a valuable member of the community, while he awaits a decision on his asylum claim.

Banned from leaving the house

“I was scared and did as she told me. I was in shock.”

Marie (not her real name) fled Ghana after government forces tried to kill her at home. Some people then helped her get to the UK, where a woman met her at the airport.

Marie thought she was safe – but over the following months, she was forced to work as a domestic servant, banned from even leaving the house.

One day, Marie was left at a bus stop. Although she knew she was in the UK, she had no idea which town or city. She didn’t even speak the language. She finally managed to find someone who spoke French, who took her to a nearby church.

For survivors in the UK, there are signs that the issue is finally being given a spotlight.

Earlier this year (2015), the government passed the Modern Slavery Act. It was a historic moment – the first time that modern slavery has been fully recognised in law.

It means that those supporting slavery in the UK – like the woman who locked Marie in her house – should now receive maximum punishment and sentences.

But for many survivors of trafficking, their desperate tale does not end with their freedom.

In the UK, they are given safe housing for approximately 45 days. After that period, they face a difficult choice since they may not have the right to stay in the UK.

Some people may wish to return home, but fear being re-trafficked or shunned by their community. The shame is too great. They may try to hide or even return to their previous situation, as it is their only option.

If they are British-born, the path ahead may not be easy, either. They will have to face the terrible torment they went through. Their trust is probably destroyed. There may be constant traumatic flashbacks.

Every year, the British Red Cross receives more requests to support exploited people who have been working in horrendous circumstances. Some are potential victims of trafficking.

We support these survivors around the country – from Manchester to Somerset.

BBC report on human trafficking in Manchester and modern-day slavery.

Our reception centres help with everything from emotional support to giving out drinks, snacks and blankets.

If someone is seeking asylum, they are referred to our refugee support team, who help them to navigate the complex process.

The Red Cross is also currently working on the PROTECT project, in collaboration with the Croatian Red Cross. The aim is to help the Red Cross better identify and respond to human trafficking and exploitation around the world.

We are doing all this because we want to help even more people. But we could all learn to spot the signs a bit better.

After all, official figures underrepresent the problem. Some people remain hidden and out of sight.

We simply do not know how many people right now are victims of trafficking, still undiscovered and needing our help.

Look out for a person who may have one or more of these signs:

> cannot move around freely

> has little opportunity to communicate with friends and family

> is bound by a debt that keeps getting bigger

> has threats made against them or their family

> lacks adequate sleeping space

> seems controlled by someone

> is either not paid, paid very little, or has money deducted from wages

> has no control over their money

> has either no or limited access to identity documents

> is not allowed to speak for themselves

> seems afraid

> shows signs of poor physical or mental health.

If you or anyone you know is affected by any of these issues, and remain in danger, please call 999.

Otherwise, contact the government Modern Slavery helpline (available 24 hours a day) on 0800 0121 700 if you have any concerns.

Or, if you want to help but don’t know how, you can support the British Red Cross.

Together, we can help people escape terrible situations. We can give them the emotional support they need in those early days.

We can help them hope and trust again.