Long distances and lives

When Mo Farah’s revelation about being trafficked as a child hit the headlines, public awareness about modern slavery grew. Charlie Jaay reveals the story of victims supported by a northern charity

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“As soon as I arrived at my new ‘job’ I knew I had made a mistake,” says Adam*. “I was on call 24 hours, and my life was threatened many times. They took all my ID and never let me go anywhere without them, so I didn’t see my family for years. I spent my whole time looking for a chance to escape and it finally came, five years later.”

“Modern slavery exists in many forms, often hidden in plain sight and closer to home than we would imagine.”

One of the only words Adam knew in English was “police”, but this was enough for someone to point him in the direction of safety and, through the Salvation Army, he was referred to the Medaille Trust. Adam knows he is one of the lucky ones. Around the world, domestic slavery and forced sexual exploitation and labour affect more than 40 million people.

Here in the UK, the problem of modern slavery is growing, as is public awareness following Mo Farah’s recent shock revelation that he was trafficked from Djibouti to the UK as a child.

Last year, 13,000 people were identified as victims and referred to authorities, nearly double the number of 2018. Over 30 per cent of these were British nationals and almost 5,500 were children.

But according to Dame Sara Thornton, the UK’s Independent Anti- Slavery Commissioner, many cases remain hidden, as those affected often find themselves unable to leave their situation, or do not seek help because of fear or shame. The real number is estimated to be much higher than official figures.

“Modern slavery exists in many forms across the UK, often hidden in plain sight and much closer to home than each of us would like to imagine – individuals forced to work long hours under duress at nail bars and hand car wash sites, and children groomed into transporting drugs across county lines,” she says.

Adam keeps busy with his work and studies, and is now fluent in English and in his own accommodation, but admits life could have been very different.

“I arrived at Medaille Trust with just the clothes I was wearing but remember that night having my first good sleep in five years,” he says. “The staff are brilliant and supported me with everything. I am so grateful.

“I was afraid to go out at first and just wanted to stay in bed, but they built up my confidence and created a good environment for all of us in the safe house, as well as encouraging us to engage with the community.

The Medaille Trust was founded in 2006 by Sister Ann Teresa to help women being trafficked into prostitution in southern England. Ann Teresa, who died in March, opened a safe house for them in Southampton. This grew into a national network, and there are now nine safe houses, including two in Manchester and one in Merseyside, making the organisation one of the UK’s biggest providers of accommodation for victims of modern slavery.

It is one of several first responder NGOs, so can interview and then refer a potential victim into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the process set up by the government to identify and support victims of modern slavery. Other first responders include police, Border Force, local authorities and the Salvation Army.

Once accepted into the NRM, victims can be placed into a safe house. According to Naomi Mumba-Dobson, Medaille Trust’s Merseyside service manager, a lot of work is often required to gain their client’s trust and help them feel settled and safe.

“This can be difficult at times when you are working with people who have experienced so much trauma,” she says. “But working with them to achieve something that might seem so small to others, like going out for a walk or sitting in the garden, can be massive and greatly helps improve their mental health.”

Time stayed at a safe house depends on a client’s needs but sometimes they can be there for more than two years, especially if also claiming asylum. A greater awareness and improved understanding of modern slavery has resulted in more reporting of the problem and the 10 beds at the Merseyside safe house and 26 beds in Manchester are nearly always full. These safe houses are male only, but others are specifically for women, and also their children.

Sam Baxendale, service manager for Medaille’s safe houses in Manchester, says her clients come from all over the world – Britain, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Mental health problems, including extreme PTSD, are not uncommon but staff find the transformation in many who stay rewarding.

“It is fantastic to see the changes that happen from the time people enter our service to when they leave it,” says Baxendale.

“Sometimes people think of modern slavery in terms of only women and do not necessarily think of men, but having worked with male survivors for a number of years, I can assure you that males deserve the same empathy and support as other modern-day slavery victims.

“People need to look beyond the intoxicated male on the street and see what lies behind this. This could be a lifetime of misery of forced labour and the only way to escape this is to drink. Having worked with many male victims who have been paid and forced to consume alcohol to survive the misery of their existence, this can be the reality of their existence until they are rescued.”

Medaille Trust has also launched the Moving On Project. Specialist staff in seven areas across England, including Liverpool and Manchester, help survivors of modern slavery by providing one-to-one community based support for women who have been victims of slavery.

The project helps them with anything from housing to employment, education, learning to speak English, securing their immigration status, and confidence building. Clients are also helped to find legal support if they are involved in the criminal justice system or seeking compensation.

With the launch of its Victim’s Voice project, Medaille hopes the current low number of prosecutions will increase. Staff have been trained to conduct video interviews to the same standard as the police, meaning the evidence can be used in criminal proceedings.

Jude Ashmore, retired police officer and director of police and justice partnerships at Medaille Trust, says: “Historically investigators have experienced problems in getting victims of trafficking and modern slavery to engage in the criminal justice process. There is a particular resistance and reluctance in victims providing evidential accounts of their experiences and exploitation.”

Image: Mo Farah in the BBC documentary The Real Mo Farah where he reveals he was trafficked as a child 


“I made many wrong decisions in my life, and when I came here I was scared of my own shadow.”

Amy had no contact with her family and was homeless. Unable to see any alternatives at the time, she became a sex worker and started to use drugs, on which she became dependent.
Amy was sending part of the money she earned to her boss but, eventually, feeling she was being treated badly, stopped these payments. She received death threats. She ran away, leaving everything.

“Many times I felt like killing myself, but another side of me said: ‘Don’t do it,’” she says.

Somehow, among all this turmoil, Amy managed to stop taking drugs but, fearing for
her life, ended up going to the police. She was referred to the Medaille Trust, where she has been for the past year. Now working in a café, Amy is looking forward to becoming fully independent in the future.

“I am proud of myself now, and feel I have grown up and become my own best friend.”


Over two decades ago, Aisha travelled from Zimbabwe to England with an aunt, who was coming to study.

“I was really excited. It had always been my dream as a young girl to visit Britain,” Aisha says. 

But things did not go as expected. 

Aisha was planning to marry when she left Zimbabwe, and five months after arriving in England discovered she was pregnant. This marked the beginning of her problems. Her aunt made her do all the housework, while often depriving her of food. The aunt also took Aisha’s passport and ID. Aisha could hardly speak any English and had no phone, so was unable to confide in anyone, not even her parents.

The aunt told social services Aisha did not want her son, so he was taken away as soon as he was born. The abuse became worse. Lack of documentation made it impossible to see her child. Unable to fight any decision, he was put up for adoption. Aisha was allowed to write twice a year to him and so her English started to improve. She also continued to see social services to try to get her son back.

When Aisha became homeless she went to the Medaille Trust, which helped her get documents and prove her story to the Home Office. She now has a place of her own, and her
son is living with her. She is starting to rebuild her life, for her son and herself, but things are
still hard and there are lasting scars.


When Mary was a young woman in Nigeria her father passed away. Her stepmother looked after her, and received payment for the sex work she forced Mary to carry out. 

Mary was later made homeless, and was approached by a woman who arranged for her to marry someone in the UK. When the man did not show up Mary was once again homeless – this time in London. She was forced into domestic servitude for several people. Each time she complained, she was made homeless again, begging and sleeping in parks, until one night she was gang raped.

Mary had three strokes, and ended up in hospital for three months. 

“When I was admitted to hospital, the staff asked me questions and told me I was a victim of modern slavery. I did not even know what modern slavery was, or that safe houses existed.” 

She was referred to the Medaille Trust by the medical staff and has been there since 2019.

“The Medaille Trust helped me to get my life back. I feel like I am able to live again. I can
enjoy my life.”

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