Halimot was nine years old when she left her home in Nigeria and was trafficked to Italy. Now aged 31, it has only been a year since she regained contact with any of her family.
“I was trafficked to Italy, then Spain and finally London. I was child trafficked.” Halimot begins to tell me her story calmly, amongst the lunchtime cacophony of Kahaila Cafe, where she has just finished a seven-hour shift.
When I arrived at Kahaila, Halimot greeted me like an old friend, enveloping me in a big hug with a huge smile and offering me a tea or coffee. As we find a quiet corner to sit down in, she begins to tell me her thoughts on Nigeria, the oil-producing region approximately 3,000 miles away with tropical marshland and labyrinths of water. “It is not a good place, it is a lawless country, some people enjoy it, but the only way you can enjoy it is if you’re super, super rich.”
And, even if you are affluent it is still perilous, Halimot continues: “Because if they find out that you’re rich, they can kidnap you and ask for ransom. There is a lot going on there.”
It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Islamic State affiliate, Boko Haram, displaced more than 9,000 people, in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Rann, following a violent attack, looting and destroying the town.
“I was not born into poverty, I was born into a middle-class family, my Dad was a businessman, he did very well,” Halimot says. “However the problems started when I lost my Dad, so, they had to share my siblings and me for all of my Dad’s family. And, the person that they shared me with, she is the one that trafficked me.”
Her trafficker moved her to Italy, where she worked “in the road, which was very long and popular, with over 300 girls on it.” She was subjected to physical violence and sexual abuse.
A recent article in The Guardian stated that about 16,000 Nigerian women arrived in Italy from Libya between 2016 and 2017. And, according to the UN’s International Office for Migration more than 80% of them were victims of trafficking, destined for a life of forced prostitution on street corners and in brothels across Italy and Europe.Halimot can remember coming back from work one day and hearing her boss talking on the phone: “They were talking about the value of money, and that was the first time I had heard about pounds. Because, when I was in Italy they used lira.” Halimot recalls to me, over-hearing the conversation and how her boss was detailing that if they changed pounds into Nigerian money, it would have a higher worth.
“I told my friend, who then told her mum – her Mum called me and said if you go to London I think you have a better chance of escape. She told me she had a friend in the UK, so she could help me to escape. She asked me to promise her never to tell anyone that she helped me so that no-one would come for her.” Halimot was given a phone number which she then placed inside a freezer bag and put inside her body so that the paper would not disintegrate.
“I came here on a British passport, and it was fake. It was not under my name”, arriving at Luton airport, the only part of Halimot’s passport that was legitimate was her photograph, so she thought they would pick up on that, and extricate her.
“I was so mad because they didn’t notice. She just looked at my passport and said ‘welcome back home’, I was so upset and scared. Because I was told that it is not like the rest of Europe, there are laws here. But coming with a fake British passport and they didn’t even catch me.”
From Luton airport, they got a train to Kings Cross. When they arrived her trafficker called someone to tell them they had arrived; and that’s when Halimot decided she had to escape: “If I didn’t do it then I would never have been able to do it. So, I dropped my bag, and I only had my backpack. I just ran and kept on running. I didn’t look back. It was December, so it was very cold.”
I asked Halimot if she was not scared that her trafficker would run after her, she responded, “I knew she wouldn’t be able to follow me, she is tall and really huge.” After running for what felt like forever, eventually Halimot stopped. “I put my hand inside me and broke the paper in the bag, I begged for coins and called her.”
The woman could not understand why Halimot did not have a coat in London, in December. Halimot presumed her friend’s Mum would have told the lady her situation, but she had not, and so when Halimot told her, she was furious and worried that the trafficker would track her down. Halimot was allowed to stay with her for a couple of days and then had to leave – she was just 16.
Since then she never told anyone her situation, sleeping where she could, in churches and mosques. Always worrying that people she met may judge her or blame her for what happened if they knew, and living in fear that her trafficker will find her.A year or so later, Halimot became pregnant and so registered with a GP. The doctor had suspected concerns with her as she had a number of scars on her body, but she never revealed anything due to living in fear of what her trafficker had previously told her. However, in 2015, Halimot tells me she had a particularly bad breakdown. She attempted suicide a number of times and the GP’s concerns were growing.
“He said to me: ‘You know we are here to help,’ and I just started crying. I got really angry at myself because I wanted to control my tears, I couldn’t do that because it was my eyes and not my body, I should be able to control it but I couldn’t. I was trying to fight the tears, but I think I just needed to let it out.” For the first time in our conversation, Halimot’s stoicism waivers as she reminisces of this particularly hard time in her life.
At this point, Halimot now had three boys, and she eventually told the doctor how she was sleeping and moving from one place to another with her children. She was no longer with their dad, having been with him since 2003. “My three boys are not meant to share my problems. I was so tired of life, but I didn’t want to die because my boys give me life.”
“My therapist told me I have to talk about it because if I don’t talk, I will have a headache and body pain”. Telling the GP her story, lead to her receiving out-reach help from Ella’s Home.
Ella’s Home is a charity which opened in 2016, with the support from The Kahaila charity family. They provide independent long-term aftercare for women who have experienced abuse through trafficking and sexual exploitation. Artefact met up with Emily Chalke, the founder of Ella’s Home.Following graduation, Emily moved to Bangkok and worked for an organisation called NightLight. “I can remember my first night out so clearly; I was only 23. I loved living there, but the work was very intense, it [prostitution] is everywhere in Thailand. I lived in a red light district for the whole time I was there in the end, so I began not even to notice it. I remember family visiting, and my Mum just couldn’t handle it.”
Emily explains how witnessing prostitution became so normalised, that often she could not process it. She was working mostly with women who weren’t Thai by the end of her time; mainly with women from Uzbekistan, who were trafficked through Bangkok. She got to know one Russian-Uzbek girl over the years, Ella (whose name has been changed), who was working in a brothel, and was always very isolated because she looked different to everyone else.
Returning to London, five-and-a-half years later, Emily received an email from Ella saying she was in London working in a brothel: “I met her, and she was really really not well, she felt like she needed to see a psychiatrist, so she knew that something was not right with her.”
Emily took Ella to a convent in central London and stayed with her for the night, where she thought subsequently she would be able to get support, “But she wouldn’t say anything so; therefore, she wasn’t entitled to any support, because they have to be able to prove that she had been trafficked.”
The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the flagship policy of Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. It is the government’s framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery to ensure they receive the appropriate support.Emily told us: “They took her in with the hope that she would speak, but after four days they sent her back to me.”
Shortly after, Emily started working with the Sophie-Hayes Foundation: “We did a research project into after-care for people who have survived trafficking, and that is when all my experience with Ella and this research project made me think, I was just hearing the same things.
“Most organisations were saying: ‘OK, we have this system in place with the NRM, but it is only going so far, we are giving people emergency care but then what happens after that?'”
The NRM gives suspected victims 45 days to recover (until last year this was just 14 days), while the Home Office investigates their case, they are given a limited period of care on a non-statutory basis while the authorities decide if the person is a victim, and then the support ends.
This often leads to victims being extremely vulnerable, at risk of homelessness and of being re-trafficked. Emily tells me she thinks this system is “just crazy. There are endless stories of women who have come to us, who have just been passed from pillar to post and are so vulnerable; they have just been left.”
In 2017 there were 5,145 people referred as potential victims of trafficking to the NRM in the UK. That was the highest number recorded by the UK authorities since the figures were first compiled in 2009, and a 35% rise from the previous year. A third of these cases are suspected to be people exploited for sexual purposes.
Two years later, and the need for longer aftercare is still very pertinent. The campaign ‘Free for Good, is pushing for the Modern Slavery Bill to give victims a guaranteed right for support in their initial period and then a further 12 months afterwards.
While Emily stresses that: “All of the safehouses who we work very closely with are incredible and do amazing work, it is not like they aren’t doing their jobs,” more resources and further aftercare is needed to keep up with the demand and to continue the recovery process. The figures only represent a margin of the problem of trafficking in the UK, and there are many more who have been exploited and trafficked but go undocumented.
Often victims of trafficking are seen first and foremost as migrants, thus they are battling the hostile environment, and instead of seeing them as the victim that they are, they seem to be criminalised. The government’s system is failing to help this cycle.Arguably the most pertinent issue from is the lack of understanding. “People see it as a very black and white issue. ‘Someone has been trafficked let’s help them out of it, okay problem solved’. But it is way more complex than that and all of the issues surrounding it which are poverty and abuse, to name a few.”
The passion for building an understanding becomes hugely evident in the way Emily begins to explain that “women who end up in prostitution are really no different to women who end up getting trafficked. But for some reason, there is not much empathy or sympathy for women who may end up in prostitution.”
The UN’s Global Report on Trafficking 2018 was published at the start of January and highlighted that 72% of trafficking victims worldwide are female, with almost three-quarters of them sexually exploited.
Stressing Emily’s point, foreign correspondent, Corinne Redfern, who specialises in gender, trafficking and sex work across Asia, recently tweeted that, culturally, we tend to view forced prostitution as separate to forced labour. Instead, it’s sexual exploitation. And forced prostitution doesn’t also fall under the category of forced labour. For those sex workers who do choose to work in the sex industry, prostitution is a job. Maybe a dangerous job, but a job nevertheless. Corinne highlights that to give sex workers the rights and respect afforded to every other kind of worker in the world; we need to view prostitution accordingly.
Emily continues: “all the root causes are – vulnerability, and that is often because of where they grew up.” She tells me about a woman she was dealing with that day, who wants justice to those who trafficked her. She was held for ten years, and she is adamant that she will get justice, she put two traffickers in prison, but they have now been let out. What it all comes back to is that “her real deep pain is the way her parents treated her. And that is what we sadly see with so many women.”
Ella’s Home started small, responding to urgent needs, but Emily tells me how they are “now looking to how to re-grow and become sustainable.” They are not government funded and so solely rely on donations and grants. They have four women at a time, which Emily explains “may change at some point. This is our third year, and it is really quite intense when you have four highly traumatised women in the house together.”
I ask Emily what the hardest part of her job is, she takes a deep breath and says, “some days you feel like you have enough material to write a book, it is really intense.”
Emily worked with Halimot for three years in their outreach support. She tells me that she first came to them she was their most high-risk, they had monthly meetings, and she was always their priority.
Halimot explains to me that she didn’t realise people wanted to help her, as she was always told by her trafficker that if ever she told anyone her story that there would be consequences.Halimot went through the Luminary Bakery course, which is part of the Kahaila family. The course takes cohorts of seven women, all of whom will have experienced homelessness, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation or criminal activity and have been referred by their social worker. They complete a six-month course in which they learn professional baking skills, as well as, skills to develop their confidence and employability skills. Halimot completed the course while also receiving the out-reach support from Ella’s Home. Then, in December 2016 Halimot started her business, Haliberry Cakes and Catering, where she makes exceptionally iced cakes for birthday’s, christenings, Christmas and all other occasions.
In 2017, Halimot was granted asylum in the UK, and that is when she started working in Kahaila café on Brick Lane. With stripped back wooden floors and people beavering away at their laptops, it may seem like any other café in London, but it is also a non-profit charity that runs local community projects helping vulnerable women.
Halimot speaks with a great smile on her face of how much of a fantastic woman Emily is, and how she will be forever grateful for the support from the Kahaila family.
She does not want her story to die with her and has got to a stage in her life where she realises she could never die without her Mum knowing what happened. She has not seen her mother since 1998, but she hopes that with working in Kahaila and with her business, she will one day be able to afford to bring her Mum to England, so her children can meet their Grandma.
Her proclivity for hard work is extremely evident – our conversation concludes with Halimot defiantly telling me that she never gives up easily, on anything.
If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, contact the police – call 999 if it’s an emergency, or 101 if it’s not urgent. If you’d prefer to stay anonymous, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
If you want confidential advice about trafficking before calling the police, there are a number of specialist organisations you can talk to:
- The Modern Slavery helpline 0800 0121 700, is open 24 hours a day,
- The NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 8005 000, if you think a child is in danger of trafficking,
- The Salvation Army’s 24-hour confidential helpline for reporting modern slavery on 0300 3038 151.
To make a donation to Ella’s Home, please visit here.
Featured image courtesy of Brianna Rouse.