“I was sold as a debt. I wished I was dead,” says Sara*, an Albanian woman in her twenties. “When I came here it was a relief, but I’m terrified to go back. I’m scared I’ll go through the same thing.”
Wearing immaculately applied make-up and speaking near perfect English, Sara appears very together. But as she recounts events from her past it becomes clear her life has been far from stable.
She didn’t plan to come to Britain. She had hopes of becoming a lawyer in her home country. Due to a string of incidents in which she was subjected to manipulation and exploitation by a number of men, however, she was prevented from doing so.
It started when she was 13 and her teacher tried to rape her. She subsequently became a source of shame to her family. Her uncle wanted to kill her, blaming her for “seducing” the man – despite the fact that he was more than twice her age. She and her parents had to move away from their home city to get away from the family.
Despite her ordeal, which she says made her suicidal at some points, Sara went on to complete a bachelors degree and started a flourishing career working as a trainee solicitor for large financial companies. But when her father told her several years later that she was to have an arranged marriage, she felt she had to comply.
“I didn’t want to get engaged,” says Sara. “I always thought it was better to have a career and then get married after. But when my father arranged this engagement I thought I had to accept it, just to make clear that I wasn’t bringing more shame on the family.”
Shortly after the engagement, her fiancé said they should move to Italy, saying they would be economically better off there. This had never been her plan, but – again – she felt she must comply in order to make up for the supposed shame she had brought on herself before.
She managed to transfer her job to offices in Italy, and began preparing for a new life there. But the optimism was short-lived.
“I believed we were going there to have a better life, but the happiness in Italy only lasted for two weeks,” she says, looking down. “I was meant to transfer to the Italian office in January after Christmas. But it never happened…”
This was because Sara’s fiancé sold her as “debt” he owed to a criminal gang.
“He sold me. I wished I was dead. The way he said it: ‘I’d rather your life than mine’. Now when I remember I just feel like I want to punch him. He wanted to save his life, so he sold mine. He owed them money so he sold me as his debt.
“In that moment I couldn’t think properly. I was in shock. Now I think back I think how couldn’t I notice? I lived with him for two weeks and I didn’t see it.”
All hope of a normal life was dashed for Sara when she found herself forced into exploitation. She was sold to a gang and used as a sex slave.
“We were locked in a house in Milan from November 2014 to July 2016,” Sara recalls. “We were controlled by the men. I tried to escape a few times but didn’t have luck. They were very controlling. I was never allowed to go out. I was locked in a room. And of course I never saw any of the money,” Sara recalls.
Sara found reason to be hopeful again when she struck up a close friendship with a new woman who was brought into the brothel. As they were both Spanish and English speakers, they were able to communicate without the men knowing what they were saying. The pair planned to escape.
But before they had the chance, the gang decided to leave the country to escape from police. Sara and her friend were bundled into a car with them. That’s when she discovered she was pregnant, because she began having a miscarriage.
“They took us to France to escape police. We were in a car and that’s when I had the miscarriage. I had heavy bleeding,” she says, visibly distressed by the memory.
“My friend fought with the men to get help for me. They hit her because she tried to make them send me to hospital. She was bruised. They didn’t want to send me because they thought I would escape.
“They eventually got a midwife to come. I don’t know who she was. But they brought a lady to the house to give me painkillers.”
The women used this as an opportunity. They told the nurse their situation. She wanted to help them. As she went to speak to the men to tell them what medicine Sara needed, they were able to open the door and escape.
“I have no idea what happened after that. I was still bleeding. We crossed the river and somehow got to Calais in France. We stayed there for around two days,” says Sara.
“On our way we met a guy. He saw me with blood everywhere and my friend with bruising everywhere. We gave him £300 and he helped us to get in a lorry.
“We hid in it from there to London. It was so scary. The first thing they said was try not to even breathe. It’s so dangerous.”
After a perilous journey cramped in the vehicle, the women were dropped off on the streets of Dagenham. They were picked up by police and taken to a safe house – where potential victims of slavery are taken before they are referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s official framework for identifying victims of human trafficking.
Sara arrived in the UK in July 2016. A year later, she received a positive decision from the NRM, which after looking into her situation recognised her as a victim of sex trafficking.
But her claim for asylum has since been rejected by the Home Office, who claimed she had parents to go back to in Albania and that her country had women’s shelters that can offer her support.
Sara, who is now trying to appeal the Home Office’s decision, says the idea of being sent back to Albania “terrifies” her, explaining that she is no longer in touch with her family and she fears both she and them would be at risk if she went back.
“I haven’t spoken to my family since I left Albania. I’m scared my fiancé has found out that I escaped from the gang and want to punish me and my family if I return,” she says.
“I’ve been through a lot. For 13 years of my life I’ve been hiding from everyone, trying not to be seen. I’m so tired. Going home will be like returning to the same point, and I’m scared I’ll go through the same thing.”
She adds that Albania doesn’t offer women adequate protection against abuse, saying that even after she was abused by her teacher as a child, the support wasn’t there.
“In Albania they don’t give you protection. They have some charities for trafficking and domestic abuse, but they only keep you there for two or three days, when you have bruising or any symptoms or scars on your face and body,” she explains.
“They don’t give you counselling or anything. After the incident with my teacher I went through a lot. I tried to kill myself twice. They didn’t offer the protection I have here.
“I still have nightmares about what happened to me. Sometimes I get the feeling that someone is inside the house. I try to avoid things that make me think about what I’ve been through. But I have a dream where someone is following me.
“I don’t sleep until 5 or 6am, every night it’s the same, because I’m afraid of what will happen in the night.”
Sara is now being supported by a small charity, which asked to remain anonymous to protect her identify. It offers help and advice to victims of modern slavery and trafficking. Forty per cent of the people the charity supports are Albanian, and the vast majority of these are women who have been exploited as sex slaves.
More Albanian adults are referred as potential victims of trafficking than any other nationality. Last year alone, 567 Albanian adults were referred over trafficking concerns, of which 80 per cent – a total of 455 cases – related to sexual exploitation.
Human trafficking took hold in Albania following the collapse of communism in 1990, and the country has since become known as a source nation for people being kidnapped, smuggled and then sold.
Yet a disproportionately high number of Albanian women recognised as victims of trafficking by the NRM are not granted the right to stay in the UK, which can have a damaging affect on their mental health, according to the chief executive of the charity.
“That length of uncertainty and lack of knowledge about what’s going to be their future means that their mental health continues to deteriorate,” the charity worker tells The Independent.
“They try to do the best that they can to remain positive, but they have absolutely no idea what the future holds for them and many of them are absolutely petrified of going home, because they might be tortured, thrown out of home of left destitute on the streets.
“They get no closure. Yes, they’ve been recognised as victims of trafficking, but that almost isn’t important to them. The important thing is whether they are going to be safe from here on out.”
She adds that there is a lack of recognition and acknowledgement that discretionary leave, which gives the victims at least 12 months in the UK, would would offer a certain amount of security and allow them to think about the future.
“Without that, the uncertainty causes a lot of mental health issues. Our counsellors say that these women can’t start to process the trauma they’ve been through because they’re so caught up in dealing with the here and now of am I going to be able to be safe? They don’t know what the future holds for them.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery and human trafficking are abhorrent crimes, which this Government is working to tackle. The UK has some of the toughest modern slavery laws in the world and the Modern Slavery Act, introduced by Theresa May in 2015, has given law enforcement agencies the tools they need to tackle these crimes.
“We have regular engagement with the Albanian government over how to tackle modern slavery and we are looking at opportunities for investment through our Modern Slavery Fund to help Albania tackle the problem at source. We also work jointly with the Albanian community in the UK to understand how we can stamp out this terrible crime.
“Additionally, the UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and every claim is assessed on its individual merits.”
*Name changed to protect identity
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