A woman who was forced into sex work after she was trafficked in the UK is urging survivors to “stay strong and motivated” after she turned her life around following three years of living on the streets.
Dayo, 36, works as a support worker, assisting adults with learning disabilities and lives in London. The mother-of-two was trafficked into the UK from Nigeria seven years ago, and was one of 4.8 million people who are victims of forced sexual exploitation every year.
‘I slept in McDonald’s’
Slavery may have been abolished in 1833, but the illegal practice continues. Of the 24.9 million victims of forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector including domestic work, construction or agriculture, according to Unseen UK. Of these, 4.8 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation like Dayo.
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Dayo’s problems began when she lost both her parents by the age of 16. “I went to a really good school in Lagos, and had a bright future ahead of me,” she told i.
“But when my mother died when I was 16, our support network shrank. Me and my younger brother went to live with my auntie. In the same year, she died in a car accident. We lived with some of my father’s relatives, but they were cruel to us, and they just wanted to see if they could claim any of my father’s inheritance.
“We were left to fend for ourselves, and I sold items on the streets, water, snacks, anything I could find. My friend told me that there was someone in the north of Nigeria who could get us into another country, so we could make a better life for ourselves,” she added.
‘I had no idea where I was’
When her friend told her that there would be a way of getting to Europe if they travelled to the northern border of Nigeria, she leapt at the chance.
She was misled by traffickers, who said she’d be able to find steady employment in the UK. But after a traumatic journey, she said is still too painful to discuss, she discovered she would be forced to live on the fringes of society, and be indebted to the traffickers.
“They gave me a bus pass, a SIM card, dropped me off, and told me I was on my own. I was told if the police see me, they’ll arrest me and put me in prison,” she said.
“They dropped me off in the middle of the road, I had no idea where I was. They said ‘Any African man will love a beautiful girl like you. Approach them on the buses and sleep with them, then you can stay in their house.’”
“I slept on buses, I slept on the street, I slept in McDonald’s. Every month, I was expected to pay the traffickers £200,” she added.
Someone in slavery might:
- Appear to be under the control of someone else and reluctant to interact with others
- Not have personal identification on them
- Have few personal belongings, wear the same clothes every day or wear unsuitable clothes for work
- Not be able to move around freely
- Be reluctant to talk to strangers or the authorities
- Appear frightened, withdrawn, or show signs of physical or psychological abuse
- Dropped off and collected for work always in the same way, especially at unusual times, i.e. very early or late at night.
Guidelines from Anti-Slavery International
After two years on the streets, Dayo’s luck changed. “I approached a man on a bus to see if he wanted to spend the night with me, and he said, ‘Why are you doing this job?’ I told him I was doing what I could to survive, because I couldn’t work. He told me the way I’d been brought into the country meant I had a right to stay in the country.
“He then told me to approach African women, not men, and offer to do their hair instead, because I would make better money. He offered me a place to stay, and we ended up getting together. Within three months, I fell pregnant,” she added.
While the stability was short lived, Dayo slowly began to earn more money. “It was difficult. My partner lived in a shared house, and we were holed up in one room,” she said.
“I had a job, he didn’t. I fell ill with a fever at one point during the pregnancy, so I had to stop working. We couldn’t afford rent, and shortly after that, we decided to go our separate ways,” she added.
A last resort
Dayo had her baby in 2017, but she didn’t have a steady roof over her head.
“As a last resort, I reached out to social services. They were quite hostile, and said they couldn’t assist me, and called the police to verify my story. I was referred to the Salvation Army and they offered some help at last. When the Home Office gave me residency, I was moved to temporary accommodation, which is where I am now.
“When I arrived in the accommodation, I was supported by a lot of charities like Beam, who crowdfund support for people like me who want to take on training and improve their skills to get a job. During that time, my daughter was looked after by a charity who helped victims of trafficking, and I paid my time back by volunteering to help others. When I could help, I felt at my most jovial,” she added.
While Dayo was lucky enough to be released from her traffickers, there are concerns the abuse could surge because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sexual exploitation in the UK has risen sharply in the past three years, government has shown, with figures released to i through Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation showing cases increased from 158 in May 2017 to 543 in April 2020.
“With the economic impacts of Covid-19 increasing rates of unemployment, we have seen that these vulnerabilities can lead to exploitation such as bonded labour, underpaid employment or sex trafficking,” Meenal Sachdev, a Councillor for Hertsmere and Founder and Director of the Shiva Foundation told i.
The support worker who lives in London has told her story to commemorate Anti-Slavery Day on 18 October, a day created by Parliament to raise awareness of modern slavery and inspire people to eliminate it.
“In the near future, I want to train as a nurse. I now have two children, and I would love to be out of temporary accommodation and have a permanent place to live where I can call home. I now have a counsellor I can talk to, so I can work through the trauma,” she said.
“I want to tell this my story to motivate people. Because today I don’t just survive, I can live, and I have a hope of a brighter future. So if I can come through all that, someone else in my position can too.”