So the Saturday just gone saw me heading off first thing in the morning into Aberdeen to start my first round of training to work as a volunteer for the City Hearts Aberdeen safe house for victims of human trafficking. The day had us taking an in-depth look at the work City Hearts does, as well as going through safe guarding issues and why the need for this safe house in Aberdeen is so great. On Sunday we then had the official launch of City Hearts Aberdeen at The Junction Church to which Jenny Gilpin, the charity founder, came and spoke to us about her personal story and how City Hearts all began.
At the training I got to meet the other volunteers and spend some time getting to know them over a coffee which was great as we will obviously be spending a unique kind of time together in the safe house. I am looking forward to getting to know these ladies better as our journey continues together. We all have very different backgrounds yet all seem to share the same heart for seeing an end to the atrocities of human trafficking, whilst caring for those who have suffered so greatly. As most of you know this is an issue that has been close to my heart for sometime now and I have spent a lot of time researching human trafficking and modern slavery. I have read many painful stories, some of which I have been able to relate here on this blog, but nothing prepares you for hearing such stories told first hand by people who themselves have met and helped survivors of modern slavery. One of the ladies from City Hearts who was with us, the house manager for City Hearts Sheffield, told us a couple of stories that just defy any sense of humanity. One young woman who was rescued a few years back was in fact of British nationality and had been kept a prisoner in a darkened room with no window for seven years, where she had to have sex with up to 20 men a day. When she became pregnant and was nearly ready to give birth and was no longer needed she was taken to a car park where her captors had planned to set her alight. Amazingly the police had tracked her down and found her at this moment, with the petrol can lying next to her. She has been left with atrocious injuries, a number of which she will never recover from. However, through the support she has received from City Hearts she is now on track to becoming a social worker and making a life for herself where she supports and helps those in need each day. Whilst an utterly sickening story to hear about, there is hope in the restoration which City Hearts have been able to support her in. We all of us need this kind of hope; to believe that healing is possible, that love is available, and that despite the evil in our world there are those willing to make sacrifices to see justice done and life renewed.
So whilst we spent a number of hours learning about safe guarding and the boundaries and professionalism that is paramount to this kind of care, we also learned a lot about the systems that have been put in place by the government to identify victims of modern slavery and how their journey then progresses. Victims are identified by “First Responders” (please see photo below for examples of First Responders) and the First Responder then refers the victim to the NRM (National Referral Mechanism) which is a process the government has put in place to identify the evidence behind each human trafficking case and its validity. If there is evidence to suggest a victim is in fact a survivor of modern slavery then they are granted “Positive Reasonable Grounds” and are given 90 days in Scotland and 45 days in England and Wales (although this 45 days is trying to be extended by campaigners in England and Wales also to 90 days) for what is termed “Rest and Recover”. During this time (45/90 days) the case will be investigated to assess a final outcome of whether the survivor will be granted “Conclusive Positive Grounds” or “Conclusive Negative Grounds” as to whether they are considered a true victim. The government will only gives victims support for this 45/90 day period after which they need to have structures in place in order to be able to support themselves if they are granted positive grounds to stay here. I hope I have explained that all correctly! It was a complicated procedure to understand and I plan to write more about the NRM in better detail once I have done some more research as I think it is valuable for us all to know more about this system. But as you can see, any charity or agency hoping to help a victim of slavery does not have a huge amount of time to do it in.
We also learned about what types of modern slavery are taking place in the UK and the fact that many victims of human trafficking are in fact UK residents and not just people being brought over from abroad. Not only that but the number of UK victims is continually rising. We heard about one lady who was a teacher, with a nice life, home, car etc. All the things we would consider attributes of a safe and flourishing young life yet she met a man internet dating and it wasn’t long before she was drawn into his world of drugs and found herself being a victim of trafficking for a year. According to the International Labour Organisation in 2016, human trafficking and modern day slavery are taking place in “every region of the world”. Nowhere is without its dangers as far as this crime is concerned. One in four of all victims are children and in the last five years alone there have been 89 million victims of slavery globally.
The reason why Aberdeen has been marked as an important area to open this new branch of City Hearts is because of how big the port in Aberdeen is and the fact that victims are being trafficked up and down the coast line here. Not only that but Aberdeen has been identified as having 83 brothels that use victims of slavery-this is the highest number in the whole of the UK. The other places to be aware of are car washes and nail bars as these are two of the most frequently used methods for slavery in the UK. Another new method is pop up brothels, whereby an unused house on a road will be identified and for a short amount of time used as a brothel and then shut down again before any suspicions have been raised. So this kind of thing could very easily be taking place on your road, maybe even in the house next door.
As you can imagine, even though I felt prepared for this line of work, this amount of information was a lot to process! And the very real atrocities that as volunteers we will be coming up against hit home. It didn’t make me question the choice I have made, far from it, I think it made me more determined to be involved and help in whatever way I can, but it made me understand why professionalism and boundaries really will be so important during the time spent in the safe house. A lot of this is to protect the survivors to help reduce their vulnerability and assist them in regaining trust in their own abilities and strengths. The approach from City Hearts is very much an empowering one, whereby the victims that will be brought to the house rebuild their self worth and belief in who they are, what their dreams are and how they can go about achieving them. Yet we need to safe guarded too so that at the end of the day we can go home and turn our minds and thoughts to other things so that our lives and families are not affected. I felt in very safe hands as we went through the training. We are being led by professionals who really understand this world and who are just as keen to support the volunteers and make sure they are looked after as well.
The next day was Sunday and City Hearts Aberdeen was having its official launch at The Junction Church in Aberdeen. The Junction is partnered with City Hearts Aberdeen and it is from here that the Restore programme (the programme City Hearts runs for girls with life controlling issues) will be run out, as well as being home to a drop-in cafe where local women and children of slavery can come and have a safe space during the week. The service that morning was full of joy and excitement for this charity starting its exciting journey and it was a pleasure to join them and be part of something so important. Jenny Gilpin who is the founder and CEO of City Hearts flew up to join us and shared her own story of being a baby of a gang rape and how the knowledge of this directed her to setting up City Hearts so that no woman out there should suffer such pain alone. City Hearts does also support children as well as men of trafficking as it has grown. There were specially designed City Hearts cupcakes for us to enjoy and party rockets that were exploded as we counted down the launch from 5! The team who will be running City Hearts Aberdeen also spoke to us about the journey so far and how much support the launch of City Hearts Aberdeen has received from the Scottish government, local businesses and the oil and gas industry. The way really has been paved for this charity to launch and open its doors.