Freedom from slavery
An end to suffering
THANH can now walk the streets with a freedom she once only dreamt of. Since childhood, she has endured the life of a modern slave: trafficked across continents, abused, exploited and held against her will – to pay off a never-ending debt to her slavemasters.
Aged 5, she was trafficked from her home in Vietnam to China with her family – tricked by a promise of a better life, but all of them forced into hard labour.
“Basically we had no choice. I remember one occasion when I was so tired I could not carry out the work they asked me to do – they beat me so hard that I believed I was going to die. My parents witnessed it and we were so scared ever since.”
“After I was 15, I had to sleep with other men – sometimes 10, sometimes more, every day. My life was really difficult because I was made to sleep with so many men that my back joint has been dislocated. The doctor told me there was a lot of pressure behind my back because I was a sex slave in China.
“I was told if I disobeyed their orders, then they would take out my organs.”
The rapes left her with two children. At 23, Thanh was trafficked by the gang out of China to Russia to pick fruit and forced to leave one of her sons behind. And then: a gruelling journey across land and sea to France. “I remember the conditions were really hard. I had to sleep with so many men. And not in a house – in a shelter, all surrounding us is forest.
“Sometimes I think I’m going to die. I try to cope; I try to manage to get by, and they said to me you will go to another place for a better life soon.”
That other place was the UK. The gang separated her from her 11-year-old son. Heartbroken, she was put on a lorry to Britain. Thanh had no idea where they were heading. “The lorry was really cold. It was used to keep meat – a freezer lorry. There were many people in it. There was one little boy inside as well and I don’t think he made it. During the journey lots of people were banging on the door, but they kept driving on.”
Thanh was brought to London to live in a basement with seven others. Again there was sex work, as well as labour: packing vegetables. But seizing an opportunity one day to escape, she fled barefoot. Too terrified to go to the police as she had no documents, she found a home with another Vietnamese family; she only came to the attention of the authorities when she developed a lump in her breast and needed treatment for cancer.
After two years, the Home Office designated her a victim of modern slavery but when her emergency shelter provision ran out, she was homeless. Only by the support of the charity Refuge did she find a way to get a roof over her head.
To her joy, she has now been reunited with her son. She dreams one day of returning to Vietnam. But for now, she is content to begin her life again as a free woman.
“At one point in time, I think if there is a tablet for me to take, for me to die – to escape, I probably would have taken it. It was so difficult. But now looking back, I am really strong. I feel I have to live on – to carry on with my life.”
• Julie Etchingham is a news presenter on ITV, a commercial TV network in the UK.
‘If I disobeyed their orders, then they would take out my organs’