UNITED KINGDOM: Child Domestic Slavery: A Growing Phenomenon in the UK

The two brothers walked through our office doors at AFRUCA. Amidst flowing tears and endless sobbing, they recounted details of their terrible experiences spanning many years at the hands of various relatives to whom they were sent as children for a better life by their mother following the death of their father in Nigeria. They revealed instead the catalogue of woe and endless suffering they experienced as domestic slaves in the UK.


Now in their mid twenties, the two young men having spent the bulk of their lives in the UK exist in abject penury. Denied the opportunity of a decent education, they are now homeless, jobless and unable to produce any documentation as proof of their identities. Effectively, they are in limbo, living from hand to mouth, not sure of their next meal or their next bed for the night. These two young men are part of a growing underclass of young people trafficked into the UK as child slaves whose adult lives have been blighted and destroyed by their terrible experiences of slavery in the country.


Over the past six months, as a result of a media campaign ran by AFRUCA on African Satellite TV stations, we have continued to receive young people who have similar tales of woe as the two brothers mentioned above. We have supported at least 15 young people in various ways since January 2007 to enable them deal with the impact of their terrible experiences of trafficking and exploitation so they can move on with their lives. While all their stories are different and wide ranging, their experiences of abuse and exploitation as domestic slaves are very similar and heart rending.


The increasing number of cases of young people trafficked into the UK as children who come to us for help and support at AFRUCA is not only disconcerting, it is an evidence of the growing phenomenon of child domestic slavery in the UK. Our experience at AFRUCA is supported by recent research into child trafficking in the country. A recent report produced by CEOP – the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre identified 330 victims of trafficking in the UK. A third of these victims were from different African countries with most of them identified as victims of trafficking for domestic slavery. This is corroborated by the results of another study on child trafficking in the North of England by ECPAT UK. Again, majority of the victims are African and most of these were also trafficked into the country for domestic slavery.


Without any attempt to stigmatise any community, it is pertinent to add that all the 15 victims mentioned above, including the two brothers are of Nigerian origin. In the same vein, all the victims of domestic slavery identified in the two research reports referred to above are also all from Nigeria. As a Nigerian myself, this fact is quite disconcerting. Why are Nigerian children being trafficked into the UK for domestic slavery?


The practice of using children for domestic servitude is undoubtedly a very common in phenomenon in Nigeria itself. According to local non governmental organisations campaigning against this practice, almost every middle class household employs domestic servants many of whom are children. Due to the growing poverty level, the widening gap between rich and poor Nigerians, many parents are wont to give their children to better off relatives in the belief that they will be well looked after and provided an opportunity of either going to school or learning a vocation. However, most of these children end up being used as slaves and servants.


Yet the idea of giving children away to relatives is nothing new or strange in many African countries. The practice of fostering, where children are given to relatives to look after is neither an act borne out of cruelty or ignorance. In the past, this system has afforded many children from poor backgrounds the opportunity of experiencing a good education leading to a prosperous future. The notion that it takes a village to raise a child meant that the extended family has responsibility for ensuring children have access to a decent life which their poor parents are unable to provide them. Unfortunately, this system of community support has been bastardised and abused by unscrupulous individuals with ulterior motives. The sad case of Victoria Climbie, the Ivorien girl trafficked into the UK and tortured to death by her relative comes to mind here.


The growing problem of child trafficking for domestic slavery among Nigerians in the UK is also being fuelled by another factor. Undoubtedly the highest number of nationals of any given African country in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's country information on Nigeria estimates the number of Nigerians in the UK at over 2 million people. Nigerians are probably the most rooted nationals of any given African country in the UK, bearing in mind that many have been living or visiting the country since the 1960s and 1970s after Nigeria gained independence from the UK in 1960. With a growing middle class population, it is not surprising that the practice of fostering is equally taking hold here as well. Unfortunately however, many children and their parents have been deceived into coming to the UK for a so called better life and a good education. Instead, these children end up being used as slaves, to look after the families of their exploiters and cater for their every need. Just like the two brothers mentioned above, many children have been subjected to a life of absolute suffering, multiple abuse, excessive child labour and harm. Instead of the better life and the good education promised, only a childhood of exploitation awaits.


As highlighted above, there are many terrible implications of domestic slavery on victims. Since most are locked up in the home, many are denied the opportunity of a good education which ironically is the only reason their parents allowed them to come to the UK. The physical abuse experienced in many cases result in long term poor health. Some of the victims we worked with at AFRUCA were also sexually abused by their exploiters. Most terrible of all is the rupture with their own families. A young girl we supported at AFRUCA was brought into the UK at the age of 9 years. Now at the age of 19 years, she has never been in touch with any member of her immediate family as she was prevented from doing so by her exploiters. She has lost all forms of contact with her family and it is indeed doubtful if she would ever be able to locate them ever again.

This broken family link, the denial of rights to a decent family life in my view is a serious form of emotional abuse experienced by victims of trafficking. Added to the lack of parental care given by the exploiters, many child victims exist in an emotional vacuum, with no love, no affection, no attention ever demonstrated towards them by their exploiters. The deceit, abuse and exploitation experienced at the hands of those they expected to care for them and help them achieve a better life result in a deep emotional and psychological scarring. In fact, many of the victims who come to us have revealed that at one time or another, they either attempted suicide or had many suicidal thoughts.


Yet the implications of their experiences do not end with their slavery. Every single young person we have been in contact with has a serious problem proving their true identity. In many instances, traffickers employ false identities in order to be able to procure travel documents to bring their child victims into the country. Now as adults, many of them have no way of ascertaining their true names, age and date of birth since they do not have access to any documentation with this information. It is of course important to highlight that most of these young people were also used to claim different forms of state benefit using their false identities. Some of the young people's ages were inflated to enable them meet the age criteria to attend night classes at college when they should really be in full time education.


The worst impact of the above is that the young people are disbelieved by the authorities when they attempt to regularise their status in the country as they are unable to provide evidence of their true identity. In this sense, the implication of their experiences is not limited to the period spent in exploitation but continues long afterwards. In addition, I have highlighted above the inability to access paid employment due to their inability to provide any proof of their identity or the right to be in the country. The damage done to victims of trafficking in this sense does not end with their slavery but is indeed a permanent one.


At one point or another, many victims of trafficking do come to the attention of different agencies – be it social services, schools, doctors and others. In my view, their experiences are compounded by the inability of many practitioners they came into contact with to identify the indicators of abuse and exploitation and to safeguard them. At least one victim we worked with had run away to seek help and support from her local social services department. Unfortunately, not only was she denied any form of help, she was reprimanded for running away from home and was returned back to her exploiters!


Despite the growing numbers of victims coming to the attention of the authorities, it is baffling that no one has ever been prosecuted in the UK for child domestic slavery. Many of the victims we have worked with have taken the steps to report their cases although to date no action has been taken. Yet the UK government is a signatory to the EU Convention on Human Rights. Articles 3 and 4 of the Convention clearly highlight the rights of people not to be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or to be held in slavery or servitude. The UK government has the obligation to protect the rights of those contravened under both Articles mentioned above. It is therefore a mystery that no one has ever been prosecuted in the UK for child slavery despite the many cases reported to the police as well as those identified in many media and research reports.


My viewpoint is that until someone is prosecuted for trafficking and exploiting children as domestic slaves in the UK, this practice will continue unabated. In my view, it would be tantamount to condoning, even sanctioning the activities of child traffickers and exploiters who the government has vowed to fight against as highlighted in the new National Action Plan on Human Trafficking if nothing concrete was done to ensure victims get the justice they deserve. Not only should their exploiters be made to face the music, but victims need to be given the support and assistance they require to enable them prosecute their exploiters and seek compensation for their lost childhood. Many victims who have been acknowledged by the Home Office are still denied a leave to remain in the UK. The lack of support for victims of trafficking and the practice of returning them to their home countries to experience further abuse and harm runs contrary to the behaviour of any civilised society. It is not only a travesty of justice but an act of cruelty. In my view, many more children will continue to be trafficked into the UK and exploited by people of criminal minds if genuine cases of trafficking are not pursued and prosecuted by the government.


In addition to supporting genuine victims, it is imperative that urgent action is taken to raise mass awareness in source countries such as Nigeria about the implication of giving children to people in the hope that they will experience a better life and a good education. The days of good people caring for other people's children are now long gone. Mostly people of criminal minds, with ulterior motives offer to help these days. Unless people in such countries are aware of these facts, the endless stream of children looking for a better life in the UK will continue unabated.



Debbie Ariyo is Founder and Executive Director of AFRUCA – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, an organisation promoting the rights and welfare of African children in the UK. www.afruca.org  




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