Witnesses who overcame terror to give evidence

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The Independent Online
MOST THINGS were denied to Francisca Ifekaozor by her employer. She was not to go out of the house in south-east London; she was not allowed to watch television; she was not allowed to make any noise: 'One day, I went to prepare my breakfast . . . unfortunately I mistakenly dropped the sugar bowl and she heard the noise . . . she grabbed my hair and punched me in the back.'

This was in 1990 - a year after the 26-year-old catering student had arrived from Nigeria to work for Elizabeth Chandler, a registered nurse with British citizenship. Francisca thought this would be her opportunity. 'Both my parents were dead. I was really excited,' she said.

Her hopes were quickly dashed. Chandler treated her like a slave, beating her with shoes, abusing her, forcing her to sleep on the floor - 'I was so afraid of the lady', she said. In 1991, she found her chance to escape and has been living since then in a women's refuge in south London.

She has lived in fear for most of that time, worried that Chandler would find her. Last year, the Independent told her story and was contacted by a friend of Florence Mokolo. She too had been brutally ill-treated by Chandler and had also escaped. She was hiding in the south London house of a health worker. Ms Mokolo, 22, was so frightened of discovery that she refused even to answer the telephone. Deptford police arrested Chandler.

It was difficult for both of them to give evidence against a woman they still find terrifying. Her conviction yesterday was a tribute to their courage. Jean Gould, their solicitor, said: 'This case is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many domestic workers working in Britain who are subject to treatment like slaves.'

There are as many as 20,000 migrant servants in the UK, leading more or less invisible lives, held captive in the homes of employers.

Like Ms Ifekaozor, they are allowed into the country under a concession in the immigration law which enables foreign visitors to bring in domestic staff. They are liable to deportation should they stop working for their employer. Most servants, threatened with this, are prepared to endure abuse rather than return home.

Next month, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, leads a delegation to the Home Office on behalf of the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers, which supports and advises runaway domestic servants, as part of the campaign to improve their legal standing. Sister Margaret Healy, one of the co-ordinators, said: 'The verdict is a great boost to all of us but the injustice remains.'

Ms Ifekaozor is luckier than most. She has indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Unwittingly, Ms Mokolo came to Britain on a false passport supplied by Chandler and is therefore an illegal immigrant.

Ms Gould has applied to the Home Office to allow her to remain. She has no relatives in Nigeria. So far there has been no official response. 'That would be a travesty if the reward for courage is deportation,' she said.