Human trafficking is closer to home than you think

No-one should be bought or sold, says justice minister Michael Matheson.
No-one should be bought or sold, says justice minister Michael Matheson.

Their stories begin with hope and trust. Their stories begin with believing people who said they could help them find their way to a better life.

But, like so many, what they found was a nightmare with no escape.

Eva and Mike – not their real names – were bought and sold as commodoties and stripped of their human rights and dignity.

And the nightmare they were trapped in – being beaten, drugged and isolated in cramped conditions – was happening right here in Scotland.

A campaign, led by the Scottish Government with Police Scotland and several charities, aims to tell people in Scotland that it’s happening – and not just in our cities

And they want people to be more aware of the problem because it can be stopped.

Recent research has identified locations that include 27 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

The research busted another myth too – human trafficking is not just happening in brothels, it’s also found in nail bars, fishing boats and construction sites too, among others, where people are forced to work for little or no wages.

Eva’s story began with the promise of a new life with a man she loved.

Aged 28, from South Eastern Europe, she left home to go to university, then got engaged to a man called Alek.

When, soon after, he suggested they move to a neighbouring country where they could both have a better life, she didn’t hesitate.

But when they arrived, Eva was told she would need to stay with Alek’s friends as he had urgent business.

There she was told she would be expected to prostitute herself and when she refused, she was assaulted and drugged.

Eva was prostituted by several different people and moved around lots of times.

She said: “I was made to sleep with up to ten men a day and was also drugged, assaulted and kept in isolation for periods at a time.”

In October 2016 Eva was placed in a lorry which travelled for three days before arriving in Scotland.

She was kept in a flat with other women until one day she spotted a chance to escape through a first floor window.

“I got on the first train to Glasgow where a concerned taxi driver took me straight to the police station,” she said.

Police Scotland took her to the TARA (Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance) – one of the charities backing the campaign – which gave her safe accommodation and support.

“It was like being in a dream after so many months of hell,” she remembers.

While she’s now safe and rebuilding her life, the emotional scars will take longer to heal and she still needs psychological treatment. She has made friends and is now “living a fairly normal life”.

“However, it makes me sad that I don’t see my family as I’m too scared to contact them in case I put them in danger.”

No-one spoke directly to the newspaper for this article – even the members of the charities that helped them have no direct contact unless absolutely necessary.

But their words have been recorded and are shared to help people understand how extensive the problem is – and that it is happening right here in Scotland.

Giving this almost invisible, silent misery a voice is vital to stop this appalling abuse of human rights, say campaigners, led by the Scottish Government, which recently published its Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy.

Its aim is to identify and support victims, identify perpetrators and disrupt activity – and also to address the conditions which foster trafficking.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson said: “Generating awareness that the exploitation of adults and children is happening in Scotland today is key to bringing it to an end.

“This important campaign is part of a series of measures being implemented to eliminate this terrible crime.

“No one should ever be bought or sold.”

The campaign wants to end suffering like Mike, from Ghana, who was a fisherman for seven years.

He saw an advert in his local paper for a fishing job in Scotland, with a salary advertised as much higher than the one he was gettingin Ghana.

He was engaged to be married and wanted to build a new house for his soon to be wife. So, he took the job, full of hope.

Mike said: “I have never been abroad and was excited with this new adventure!”

He travelled with another three Ghanaians to the UK where they were met at the airport by a man called Billie.

Mike recalls: “He drove us for three hours to our work place. We didn’t know where we were going and he hardly spoke to us. We arrived late at night to a house and were told to go inside.

“When we walked in, we saw bodies sleeping on the floor. Billie collected our passports – he said he would help us to organise our national insurance numbers. This was the last time I saw my passport for a year.”

The men worked seven days a week, 12 hours at a stretch, with no protective equipment. They slept on the vessel, with limited washing facilities and limited food.

“We were not allowed to go out – Billie and two other skippers were always with us watching us,” he said.

When Mike realised his monthly wage was only a fraction of what he had been promised, he angrily questioned Billie.

Mike was attacked, but despite having a black eye and bleeding he was not allowed to go to the hospital.

“Billie threatened me that my family would suffer and the police would jail me if I didn’t listen. I felt hopeless,” he said.

One day, the police came to Mike’s vessel and as they questioned him, he broke down and told them what was happening.

He was taken to safe accommodation where the charity Migrant Help helped him to rebuild his life.

But what he found hardest to deal with was the feeling of shame that he had allowed this to happen.

“I was able to talk to my family, but I found it extremely difficult to speak to them about what had happened to me and how deceived and mistreated I was because of shame and guilt.

He is now underoing counselling to help him deal with the guilt.

The figures show that Eva and Mike are not unusual: the latest figures show there were 1503 potential victims of trafficking identified in Scotland in 2016 – a 52 per cent increase since 2013.

Detective Superintendent Stuart Houston, who heads up Police Scotland’s National Human Trafficking Unit, says that it is a priority for Police Scotland.

He said: “We will target those who control, abuse and exploit others by working collaboratively with partners to ensure that Scotland is a hostile environment to this sickening trade.”

The Scottish Government and organisations backing the campaign – including Police Scotland, Migrant Help and (TARA) – would like the public’s help in ringing the largely hidden crime out into the open.

The charities offering help to victims believe that with the public’s support, the stories that began with hope can end with hope too and shattered lives can be rebuilt.

For information on the signs of human trafficking and to report concerns

Know the signs – and how you can help

Physical appearance: People may show signs of physical or psychological abuse, look malnourished or unkempt, anxious/ agitated or appear withdrawn and neglected. They may have untreated injuries.

Isolation: Rarely be allowed to travel on their own, seem under the control, influence of others.

Relationships which don’t seem right: For example a teenager appearing to be the boyfriend/ girlfriend of a much older adult.

Poor living conditions: Dirty, cramped or overcrowded accommodation, and /or living and working at the same address.

Restricted freedom: They’ll have have no ID documents, few personal possessions and wear the same clothes day in day out.

Unusual travel times: Regularly dropped off or collected for work either very early or late at night. Children being dropped off/ picked up at unusual times.

Reluctant to seek help: Avoid eye contact, appear frightened or hesitant to talk to strangers and fear law enforcers for many reasons, such as not knowing who to trust or where to get help, fear of deportation, fear of violence to them or their family.

Who should I contact?

Contact 999 in an emergency.

Or call Police Scotland on 101; Modern Slavery Helpline (confidential if you want) on 08000 121 700 or email Police Scotland’s National Human Trafficking Unit