“They just want to be a normal person, living a normal life.”: What it’s like supporting survivors of modern slavery

Ilaria is an Outreach Advocate in Hestia’s Modern Slavery Response Team. At any one time, she supports more than a dozen people who have experienced different forms of modern slavery, helping them in their journey to recovery.

Here, she tells us a little more about what her role entails, the myths about modern slavery survivors, and the one thing that all of the people she supports want from the future.

Hi Ilaria! For those who may not know, what is a Modern Slavery Advocate?

Survivors of modern slavery want to restart a new chapter of their lives. They might know what they want, but not know how to achieve it. That’s where we come in.

We support people who have experienced modern slavery with their emotional and practical needs. Our role changes with each client. We don’t enforce anything on the people we support; we try and help them with the needs that they themselves identify that they need support with.

So, for some people that might mean helping them to find a solicitor or referring them to mental health services, so they can recover from trauma. For other people, it might be finding them donations of clothes or digital devices, or simply referring them to organisations where they can make new friends.

As the name suggests, we also advocate on behalf of our clients. Sometimes, people working in different organisations don’t know what our clients’ entitlements are, so they may have difficulty registering with a GP, for example. We make sure they get what they are entitled to.

So, what does your average day look like as an Advocate?

We have a mixture of outreach days and admin days. While outreaching, you may have key working sessions, which is where you meet with a client and go through what we call a ‘support plan’. We go over the goals that they have identified and work to see what we can do to continue moving them forward and ultimately achieve their goals.

Ilaria, an Advocate with Hestia's Modern Slavery Response Team

We talk to the people we support about their health, their accommodation, and their education, for example. We spend time doing risk assessments and needs assessments, because obviously the safety of our clients is a priority, so we identify any risks and make sure everyone is safe

Sometimes we accompany clients to appointments; sometimes they might need an interpreter, so we will book an interpreter. Other times, they are quite independent; they may need some emotional support, but they are happy to go to the appointment by themselves. Other times we outreach and meet clients to deliver payments or donation.

Sometimes, quite simply, people may be isolated and might want a chat, so we meet with them and have coffee together and make sure they are doing well. It very much depends on each individual and their circumstances.

What are the most common challenges faced by the survivors you support?

Although we also support British nationals, many of our clients are international people and many of them have unclear immigration status. Because of that, they can’t access many things. One of the things that we try do first when we work with a client is try and help them regularise their immigration status. If they claim asylum, then as asylum seekers they are entitled to many more services.

However, now especially because of the pandemic, and because many people are applying for asylum, the Home Office is very busy. We’ve had people wait more than two years for updates on their immigration status, so this means living in limbo, not knowing if you can work, not knowing if you have access to benefits. It makes it difficult to move forward knowing that their future is uncertain, and everything can change one day to the other.

It’s difficult for them to recover fully because it means they have to start from zero, over and over again.

The other thing is mental health. We work with people who have been trafficked and many of our clients experience PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. While we refer them to mental health services, you can’t recover from these experiences in a day. It is a process.

What do the people you support tell you about their hopes and dreams for the future?

It might sound silly, but it’s not: for most of them, they just want to have a happy life. They don’t want to have any more challenges, no more having to fight every day for their rights.

More specifically, if they have children, they say: “I just want to work hard and make sure what I had to go through doesn’t happen to my child.” They want to get into education, get a good job and earn independently for their family.

Many people think that people want to come to the UK to claim benefits and this is really not the case. While benefits are helpful at the beginning of the transition from an experience of exploitation to recovery, people really do want to work.

At some point, every survivor tells me: “I want to get trained; I want to get into work, I want to be like everyone else.”

They want a life where they aren’t a service user, they aren’t an asylum seeker, they aren’t a victim of modern slavery. They just want to be a normal person, living a normal life.

What other myths still exist about survivors of modern slavery?

It depends on the type of exploitation. We work with county lines survivors too; these are people that were forced into selling drugs, for example. It is very easy to criminalise these people and say: “Well, they could have said no. They were selling drugs, they are criminals.”

Luckily the judicial system is changing, and the police are being trained to recognise victims of modern slavery as victims, not as criminals. Maybe in the public’s eyes it’s still easy to judge these people as criminals. There is still a lot of stigma around survivors of modern slavery.

Finally - what do you enjoy most about your role?

I think the most difficult time when you work with someone is the first few meetings because you don’t know them yet. As soon as you start building that relationship, you also start receiving rewards for the work that you do.

Sometimes parents just want to be parents and help their children achieve as much as possible but because they have limited resources, it can be quite difficult. When you help these families to achieve their goals, it’s really rewarding.

I’m thinking of a client I’m supporting at the moment and she’s a single mother. In September, we managed to register to her daughter for nursery. Now her daughter is at nursery and loving it, and her mother has started to attend college as well. Seeing both of them live a normal life, where mum needs to wake up early, rush to the nursery, drop off her daughter, go to her own classes, then rush to pick her daughter up and then go off and do the groceries, it’s really nice. You see that they have achieved something and it makes you feel that you’ve done something good for someone and helped to improve the quality of their lives.

Check out Hestia’s latest career opportunities in our Modern Slavery Response Team

Volunteer to support survivors of modern slavery through our Phoenix Project