Walking away from slavery was terrifying for 23-year-old Cynthia. Enslaved at the age of 13 after being tricked into leaving her home and school in Nigeria for a “better life”, she had spent a decade incarcerated and exploited as a domestic servant at the hands of a wealthy family in Essex.
“I knew I had to leave,” says Cynthia, now 26. “But I was very afraid. I didn’t know where I was going or where my future lay. My head was all over the place.“
During those 10 years at the mercy of a rich, well-connected and seemingly highly respected family from Nigeria, not a soul batted an eyelid at the young girl in their community who would take other pupils to school, then pick them up, but at no point attend classes herself. In most respects, she was invisible to the outside world.
Yet Cynthia is among thousands of slavery victims whose suffering has been highlighted in a report published today about the lack of awareness of the scale or nature of modern slavery in the UK. The study, by the University of Hull and YouGov, finds that just eight per cent of the UK population understands the true extent of slavery in this country, while more than 55 per cent admit to not being aware of the most common signs.
Despite the Theresa May's recent pledge to lead the way globally in the battle against modern slavery and people trafficking, the study finds that just 11 per cent of the public are aware of the measures in place to tackle the issue. Meanwhile the Home Office estimates there are around 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK.
This lack of awareness about modern slavery among the British public is highlighted in Cynthia’s story. As a young teenager she would walk the family’s children to school each day and then return home again, without neighbours voicing any concern. When she was 15 she started attending evening classes at the local school, but none of the teachers questioned why a teenager was studying in the evening and not during the school day.
“People didn’t care,” Cynthia recalls. “It’s one of the things that really bothers me. I was only 13 years old, but nobody took issue with the fact that I shouldn’t be doing these things. I didn’t speak about it because I was told not to talk, but it’s sad that it took 10 years for anyone to say something.”
A report published by Kevin Hyland OBE, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, recently revealed “chronic weaknesses in modern slavery crime reporting,” pointing to a lack of intelligence reporting and evidence-based action, leading to victims such as Cynthia being failed by the system. In response to Cynthia’s story, Mr Hyland said: “There are many girls and women being brought over and working in the shadows.
"Cynthia was taking the children to school at the age of 13, and people didn’t take notice. She was clearly a child being treated differently from the other children, but no one spoke out or took action. It’s a problem with the law as well. It needs to be dealt with like any other crime of abuse.”
Before she moved to the UK, Cynthia was attending school in the village where she grew up in Lagos State, Nigeria. Although she was in school her family was poor, and when the offer came up through a distant family friend for her to move in with a rich Nigerian family in Britain, her parents didn’t want to turn down the opportunity for her to escape poverty and gain access to a better education.
But on arriving in the UK Cynthia quickly discovered the reality was very different. “The day after I moved here the man of the house threatened me,” she says. “He said I had to wake up at 5am every morning to clean the house. I wasn't allowed to go to school. I had been told I would take the kids to school and then go to my school for the day. But they said after I did the school run I wasn’t allowed to leave the house – just do the chores. That blew my mind.”
Cynthia became one of the 13,000 victims of modern slavery suffering in silence in the UK. She realised she had left behind a much happier life in her home country, but she found herself trapped and was unable to break out. She says: “In Nigeria I had friends and I would play. But when I came here I had to become an adult even though I was a child. I had to take on loads of responsibility. It was a lot to cope with and I had no privacy at all. My bedroom door was always kept open so they could call me at any time. Sometimes at 1am I’d have to get up and work.”
As time went on her treatment became worse. Several weeks after her arrival Cynthia wrote a letter addressed to her parents, telling the reality of what was happening, but kept it in a closed notebook. “The woman somehow found it,” she says. “That’s when I realised I was really afraid of them and I couldn’t do anything. I had to beg her for forgiveness. She wouldn’t talk to me. I became like an enemy in the house.
"I couldn’t talk to people. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I tried to tell my family in Nigeria but they didn’t believe what I was saying. The woman told them things that weren't true – that I wasn't behaving."
While struggling with her deep loneliness, Cynthia pined to go to school again. After a year of living in the UK she got another chance at education.
“The family realised I was constantly crying about not going to school," she remembers. "I would have swollen eyes at the end of every day from crying about it. The woman spoke to a friend who worked in a college and I was enrolled onto evening classes.”
But succeeding in her studies while completing her daily domestic work was no easy feat. “Before going to classes I had to finish all the housework,” Cynthia says. “The woman would inspect it before I went. Sometimes I would be late for school, other times I couldn't go at all. But I couldn’t talk to anyone there about what was happening. I had to pretend everything was okay.”
Despite missing a year of classes and studying only in the evenings, Cynthia passed her GCSEs just a year late. After that she was hungry to continue her education.
“I wanted to do a Business qualification, but it was full-time," she says. "The woman said I had to look after the kids, so I couldn’t do it. I had to do evening classes again. Accounting was the only evening class available, so I took that.
“I had to put so much effort in. I was determined. I had to do the housework too. I had to make sure everywhere was clean before I went to the library or anything."
At around the same time as she began her college studies, Cynthia met someone who made escaping seem possible.
“I met a woman in town. She was Nigerian but not within the right-knit Nigerian community,” she says. “I was sitting in a bench and she came over with her kids and started talking to me. She could see that I was worried. We got talking and she gave me her number.
"I called her a few weeks later. Gradually I was able to open up to her. She said the best way was to move out of the house. From there I was able to make that choice. I knew it was the right time for me to move.”
By talking with someone about her situation, Cynthia eventually grew the confidence to tell the family she was leaving. “I was very afraid of the future. I didn’t know where I was going," she says. "I made up my mind that I wanted to go, but it was really scary. I had been in there for 10 years."
Cynthia found a room to rent with the help of the woman who encouraged her to leave. The family reluctantly agreed she could leave, but kept her passport. She did not initially report them to the police. She thought she could swiftly move on from what had happened, but soon found the experience was causing her distress, heightened by financial pressures. She recalls: "It was a stressful time, and I found it hard to pay the rent. I would clean for people, I would iron clothes. But I was drained. Physically and emotionally.
"I couldn’t sleep for the fear of what was going to happen to me. Then I started hearing voices in my head at night, shouting orders at me. I got to the point where I was sleeping for one hour a night. I thought if everything got that difficult I would pack my bag and go back to my country, but I couldn’t even do that. They still had my passport and I had no visa, nothing. That’s when I decided I had to tell the police what they had done to me."
Cynthia reported the abuse to the police in December 2013, a year after she escaped, and her case is currently in its final stages. Just 28 per cent of modern slavery crimes in the UK that get recorded; despite there being 3,146 potential victims identified by the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in England and Wales last year, only 884 crimes were recorded by police forces.
Three years after escaping from the labour exploitation she was subjected to, Cynthia won her asylum case last week and is now, with the support of national charity Migrant Help UK, working for a charity alongside her Accountancy studies, with plans to work as an account in the future.
But her relief and hope for the future are infused with a sense of frustration and sadness in knowing that that there are thousands of other victims in the country who are still suffering in silence. “A lot of people in the UK don’t even know what child trafficking is," she says.
“It saddens me that even though I’ve come out of it there are still thousands of people out there in the position I was in. The victims are kept inside the house. They’re crying but people aren't listening out for their voice.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies