LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British survivor of sex trafficking made an impassioned plea on Wednesday for more action to be taken against those responsible for enslaving people across the globe, from upmarket British and U.S. neighborhoods to slums in India.
An estimated 40 million people were enslaved globally last year, in both rich and poor countries, with modern slavery becoming a catch-all term to describe human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, sex trafficking, and forced marriage.
Sarah said she was aged 12 and in foster care when she was trafficked by a gang in England who were initially kind to her, giving her cigarettes then drugs.
They quickly changed, saying she owed then 75,000 pounds ($100,000) and threatening her, her family and loved ones.
“They got violent and held me at gunpoint and said they would sell my body every day until that debt was paid,” Sarah, using a false name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference where one day focuses on slavery.
“For the next seven years I was sold every day to many different men,” she said, adding that her school, social services, and other authorities failed to see her plight.
Four years ago Sarah was rescued by a police officer who realized she was being exploited and moved her to a safe house while the gang involved was pursued.
But the gang leader died and the case was closed.
“Because of the continual system failures it took me seven years to be free,” said Sarah who has received help from the UK-based non-profit Snowdrop Project that provides long-term, community support to survivors of human trafficking.
“All those years of people not caring ... do that now. Now you know my story, do your job now and protect me and everybody else who needs protecting,” she said to applause.
The British government estimates there are 13,000 victims of slavery in the country but the UK’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland said he feared the number was much higher.
“Behind every number is a name,” said Hyland. “We still need to gain the attention of world leaders.”
Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, whose charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) has rescued over 80,000 enslaved children, told the conference in a video message that the world must no longer tolerate people living in slavery.
With the U.N.’s latest global goals calling for the end of forced labor, slavery and human trafficking by 2030, campaigners said it was time to end this escalating crime worth an estimated $150 billion a year.
Professor of Contemporary Slavery at Britain’s University of Nottingham, Kevin Bales, said the price of a slave was the lowest ever with an average price of just $90-100.
Jessica Graham, victim services director at U.S.-based non-profit Survivor’s Ink - that helps women branded by sex traffickers get decorative tattoos to cover their marks - said people were too often choosing not to see what was before them.
“There is this common misconception that this is only happening in poor countries and poor neighborhoods ... But many of these girls come from wealthy backgrounds,” Graham told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Up to 60,000 people are believed to be living as slaves in the United States, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.
Graham said she knew nothing of trafficking until four years ago when she discovered her estranged husband trafficked women for sex including Jennifer Kempton, who founded Survivor’s Ink after six years in sex slavery in Ohio.
Kempton died of a drug overdose earlier this year.
“Sadly I’ve seen too many survivors unable to have a normal life because they have a past that haunts them every day. They need help,” said Graham, calling for more assistance for victims to find jobs, housing and rebuild their lives.
India is home to the greatest number of slaves in the world with estimates varying from 14 million to 18 million.
Ajeet Singh founded the Indian non-profit Guria in 1993, to fight child prostitution and sex trafficking, and has rescued more than 2,500 people so far and run awareness campaigns.
“The attitude when I started was so different and no one wanted to know,” he said.
“But now, from the United States to Britain to India, everyone is talking about human trafficking and sex trafficking ... This is a major step because when you start talking about a subject that is the start of a solution.”
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org