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What It's Like to Be Trafficked into the UK and Forced Into Modern Slavery

"K", a Hungarian man in his mid-thirties, was taken to the UK and forced into slavery, before escaping and going undercover to help others do the same.

Michael Segalov

Michael Segalov

Illustration by Oliver Holmes

It's almost impossible to estimate the true scale of modern slavery in the UK.

Today's slaves work and live alongside us, often trafficked into the country, their exploitation hidden in plain sight. Traffickers confiscate their passports and documents, leaving them powerless in a country where they have no support network and often don't speak the language. In fact, it's basically impossible to know who's being subjected to what without them coming out and telling you, and it's not like much small talk naturally leads to questions about whether or not you're currently being enslaved.

In 2015, British authorities identified 3,266 human trafficking victims, a 39 percent increase on the previous year, which in turn had seen a 34 percent increase on the year before that. Worst case scenario: more people are being trafficked; best case scenario: authorities are doing a better job of pin-pointing victims. Either way, it's clear that trafficking and slavery are both big problems facing the UK. Parliament passed a new law – the Modern Slavery Bill – in 2015 specifically to help authorities tackle the problem.

Many of the modern slavery cases that make the national news seem to relate to domestic servitude: people being kept in a home and forced to perform housework without pay, like the three women freed from a Lambeth house after 30 years in 2013, or the 28-year-old woman rescued from an address in Rochdale this past weekend.

What you hear less of are the cases in which trafficked people are put to work in regular jobs, before their captors collect all the pay for themselves. It's a surprisingly regular occurrence and begs all sorts of questions: why do they not tell their colleagues what's happening to them? Why do they not immediately report their traffickers to the police? How do they end up in this situation in the first place?

Through the Home Office, I was able to set up a meeting with "K", a Hungarian man – and a victim of that exact kind of enslavement – in his mid-thirties. He agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity. Sitting down opposite him at a cafe in South East England, K – dressed all in black and nervously clutching a coffee – took a deep breath and began to tell me his story.

Adopted at three years old with his younger brother, he never knew his birth parents. The brothers were raised in a small Hungarian city, not far from the Slovenian border, and once his adopted father passed away, K took a job in a factory to pay the bills.

"I worked there until my car accident in 2002," he said.

Following the crash, K spent three months in a coma and another six months piecing his life together. His memory was impaired, and it wasn't until he found old receipts and letters in his bags that he could work out where he used to be employed. "I went to work and asked if they knew me, and soon they had me back on the floor," he recalled, sipping his coffee.

He may have found the place, but operating the machinery he used to be a dab hand at was now a struggle, and before long he was let go.

"I became homeless – the kind of homeless person who wanted to be homeless," he said. "I didn't want anyone to find me at all. I went onto the street and I was sleeping wherever the night took me."

After a few years of sleeping rough – and a short time working for a local pimp, before apparently handing him over to the police – K heard of an opportunity to make a new start. "Someone told me about a job in England, and about this family who were arranging to take people," he told me. "Now I had this get-out. I mean, I couldn't speak English and couldn't get there on my own, but I felt like I needed to run."

The deal was done within two weeks. K met the trafficker, had his documents copied and the flights were booked. It's not really what I'd envisioned as a route into slavery: no abduction, no coercing, ostensibly no shady business. We'd been chatting for a good half an hour at this point, and for the first time I interrupted K mid-flow. "What were you expecting to happen?" I asked him. "Did you know you were volunteering yourself into modern day slavery?"

"I wasn't really sure what would happen," he responded. "I knew these were the kind of guys looking for slaves – people who no longer cared about life, but who just needed wine, you know, something to eat and shelter. It's all I wanted then. They never told me what I might get paid and, to be honest, I never asked."

Everything was paid for and the escape route laid out: K would be in England by October of 2004.

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While more victims of modern slavery appear to be getting in touch with authorities, it's believed there are thousands more who still aren't. The Home Office's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Bernard Silverman, estimated in 2013 that there were between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of modern enslavement in the United Kingdom.

The website modernslavery.co.uk, run by the Home Office and supported by the NSPCC, says modern slavery victims in the UK have come from a number of countries – Nigeria, Albania and Vietnam among them – with 90 from the UK identified in 2013. Hungary is another country that comes up often in people trafficking and enslavement cases, most recently in January of this year, when a West Yorkshire factory owner was found guilty of employing a large number of Hungarians as a "slave workforce".

The situation was much the same in 2004, when K arrived in the UK.

"I landed in Luton and this guy came to collect me," K told me. "When we got there I was shown my room, which I was to share with two other men, both of them Hungarian."

There were only three bedrooms in this house in Stoke-On-Trent, but 22 people were living there. K had tobacco, coffee and his pocket dictionary to help him learn English: "Everything I needed, really."

He started work the next day, and while he kept hold of his passport he never saw his wages. "Without money or language you can't get away anywhere, so they had no need to take my documents," K said when I asked what kept him from running.

K was paid £50 a week for his full-time work, with the majority of his salary going directly to his trafficker. "He filled in all the forms when I was signed up for the job – I never saw them."

In April of 2005, K was driven to Bolton to start a new job.

"This went on for 18 months or so," K continued. "We worked [and had] our money taken away. I ended up getting less than my £50, because the traffickers told me they were protecting me from another mafioso. I was getting nothing."

Over time, K's English improved and he began to once again desire his freedom. "It was after about two years when I wanted my independence back," K recalled. "I had given them too much of my life already. I didn't want to give them any more time."

In the past, K had considered running away, but says he saw no feasible way out. "For what purpose? To be homeless? No," he said. "Maybe I could have tried to stay in England – it's milder here; I could survive on the street. But I thought they might hurt me. If one person can get away, that means everyone else can get away, and they wouldn't let that slide."

Realising that he couldn't do it alone, K teamed up with a couple of others in the same situation as him. Hatching a plan in collaboration with the management of the company they worked for in Bolton, everything began to come together. One of the managers took K and the others down to a bank, helped each of them open an account and started paying their wages directly to them. Soon, the traffickers were complaining, asking where their money was, but the management pointed to a fake banking error.

"A week later, the company told the traffickers that the police were looking for them," said K. "They just packed up and left the country."

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For a while, things were stable. It was the summer of 2006 and K and the others were living and working in total freedom. But then it all went to shit, again. The contract expired. The six people K lived with, all Hungarian, spoke no English, and finding work alone was tough. With the last of his money, K flew the others to Hungary, but soon found himself alone again, skint and homeless.

"I no longer understood Hungary – it had changed; the politics, the people, the culture," he said. "I felt like a stranger. Not even the streets were the same. The city I grew up in was no longer my own."

So, working and saving up again, K bought himself a flight back to the UK.

By December of 2009, he was back in Manchester, working precarious jobs and feeling miserable. He couldn't afford the rent and was set to be on the streets for another winter, until he got a call from an old friend, who knew of a group of Hungarians being held as slaves, just like K had been three years before. "He knew what I had done last time, plotting our escape, and he asked if I could help them do the same," K said, smiling.

He went in, undercover. "I travelled to Leeds. A man came to meet me," he said. "When I arrived at the house, what I saw deeply scared me. Everyone there had been trafficked."

As K knew, building trust with a stranger when you've been exploited and manipulated takes time. K grafted, and in return was paid, like the others, just £10 a week. "Finally, after a few months, one guy I was living with decided he wanted to do something rebellious," K grinned. "He started to talk to me, asking questions about what we might do."

What K and his new friends decided to do was get in touch with the Hungarian press and authorities. Before long, an arrest warrant was issued and the police raided the house.

Through The Salvation Army, K and the others were taken to a safe house and immediately put into a witness protection scheme. "When we arrived, it was after a long journey," K said. "We went in the house, and it was so big. I had a living room! I really liked it."

With the resources provided, K soon found work, helping the others find employment too. "To find a job in England, it is easy – whoever says they can't find a job is a liar," he laughed.

As our conversation came to a close, I asked K how he feels now, looking back on what happened.

"It is what it is," he responded. "I want to do more to help stop trafficking and slavery, though. Even if I never get paid for it – even if I am unofficially undercover – I will do it. If I have the chance to clean up more rubbish from the trade and help people, I will. I would do it again. I am single, so at least I don't have to worry about my children and my wife and my house."

K's story puts consent into the spotlight; his decision in 2004 to effectively volunteer himself into slavery, even if he wasn't doing it entirely consciously, raises an important point about what it means to be a slave. We imagine this process to be one of coercion and forced labour, but K offered up his freedom to his traffickers. Had his original traffickers been caught in 2004, this could have complicated the case. But fortunately under the new trafficking offence in section 2 of the Modern Slavery Bill, the consent of the victim to travel is not relevant.

"I still remember the feeling of not understanding what was happening around me when I first arrived here," K said, rolling a cigarette before leaving. "I was desperate, and they took advantage, exploiting me. I can't let that happen to anyone for as long as I live."

If you suspect that someone you know has been trafficked or is being enslaved, please call the Salvation Army's 24-hour confidential referral helpline on 03003038151, or visit salvationarmy.org.uk/human-trafficking.

@MikeSegalov / oliverrobertholmes.com

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