'I believed I was going to die': Freedom at last for victim kept 30 years as a slave

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Thanh can now walk in a London park with a freedom she once only dreamed 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.

Now aged 36, when she was five she was trafficked from her home in Vietnam to China with her family. Tricked by a promise of a better life, all of them were 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.

“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.”

Who are Britain’s slaves? This graph shows the origin of the UK’s slaves as identified by the Government’s National Referral Mechanism

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 son behind. Then she was forced to make 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… 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. 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, she fled barefoot. Too terrified to go to the police as she had no documents, she found a home with another Vietnamese family — and only came to the notice of the authorities when she developed a lump in her breast and needed cancer treatment.

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 with the help of charity Refuge did she get a roof over her head. To her joy she has now been reunited with her son. She dreams of one day returning to Vietnam.

Who is identified as a slave, and how?

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 presents ITV News at Ten. For confidential support contact Refuge’s modern slavery service on 020 7395 7722 or email modernslavery@refuge.org.uk.  

More at refuge.org.uk, and help end slavery by visiting the Evening Standard’s action hub here.

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