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Archives for March 2011

Tales of slavery in modern London

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Kurt Barling | 12:52 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

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Pastor Lucy Adeniji has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be sentenced to a total of eleven and a half years in prison after being found guilty of trafficking children into Britain for domestic servitude.

Some years ago on BBC London I broadcast the story of Tunde Jaji, raised in domestic servitude in north London and then abandoned to his identity paper-less fate when he rebelled against his condition.

I managed to secure proof he had been in London for more than 14 years and he went on to get his status regularised and a good degree from University. He is now settled.

At around the same time I met a group of seven women in similar circumstances who all agreed to speak to me after consulting with their lawyer. For legal reasons I am only now able to tell their story four years on.

One of their biggest frustrations has been getting the authorities to believe their stories of domestic servitude and to act upon their allegations.

So while the perpetrators of these acts of inhumanity go about their business freely, their victims count the cost in psychological as well as welfare terms.

One of the girls, whom I shall call Jenny, finally got her day in court in February. Pastor Adeniji, was made to face the allegations against her and the jury, having believed Jenny's testimony, convicted her.

In short Adeniji could not account for the fact that Jenny had no legitimate papers despite being in her care from the age of 11 (Jenny left Adeniji's home after eight years in 2006).

Nor could she account for the fact that Jenny had not been at school for three years after coming to London from Nigeria in 1998.

Jenny's evidence of beatings; pepper in the eyes and genitals, stabbings and all round brutality beggar belief. Speaking to neighbours of the family in a quiet cul-de-sac in Beckton there was genuine disbelief and anger that this had been going on right under their noses.

Part of the problem, it would seem, is reluctance by the authorities to intervene and question families when they are seeking to rely on the testimony of a child over an adult.

In the cases of the women I met in 2007, including Jenny, nearly all approached the police to complain, once they had left the homes where they had acted as domestic servants for years, to be met by a wall of disbelief.

Debbie Ariyo runs a lottery-funded charity, Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA). She believes that many of the perpetrators of this type of crime deceive the authorities by claiming that the children are related in some way or even that their way of raising "privately fostered" children is culturally specific.

Practitioners, she points out, need to listen first to the child, then investigate and conclude before dismissing serious allegations as the figment of a child's over fertile imagination.

This was the kind of grave failing that led to the murder of Victoria Climbie by her great aunt back in 1999. Things were supposed to have improved.

The Met Police set up operation Paladin in 2004 precisely to look into the reasons behind the rise in the numbers of unaccompanied minors entering the UK.

Detective Inspector Gordon Valentine was responsible for investigating Jenny's case and believes that unfortunately it represents just the tip of the iceberg. He also says public authorities and the public themselves need to be more aware of the signs that a child is enslaved.

A young person regularly bringing children to school, a child more bedraggled than other children in the same "family". No parent's attending school functions or even GPs being visited by minors without their parents.

In Jenny's case a regular school bus used to pick up Adeniji's wheelchair bound daughter every day. But no one appears to have thought to question why Jenny (a young child) was handing over the wheelchair bound child in the morning and taking in the same child on her return.

The authorities are mostly playing a game of catch up. Unless they can get to these victims quickly the evidence is often historic and the perpetrators elusive. There is also no incentive for the victim to cooperate if they face the prospect of deportation on being found out. This is often the fear instilled in the child by their abuser.

The prospect of being effectively without status for years can push these young victims over the edge. Another of the women I met, I'll call her Sarah, described how desperate things can become, to the point where committing suicide is a release from a fate many of them consider worse than death.

Four years after first meeting these seven women, only Jenny has seen here perpetrator investigated and prosecuted.

Jenny and her children have no permanent status still in the UK. Sarah has been given a visa for five years. Two others have indefinite leave to remain whilst the remaining 3 still are in visa limbo unsure of their future.

Some immigration judges accept that this situation runs counter to Britain's international treaty obligations enshrined in the Human Rights Act. This says if you want people to cooperate to stamp out trafficking you must first ensure their security.

As Pastor Adeniji begins her prison sentence Jenny sees some cause for optimism. She personally feels free from her abuser at last. She also hopes that it will give other children who find themselves in similar circumstances the courage to come forward.

The rest of us will just have to face up to the fact that when we suspect something is not right we may have to raise our concerns more quickly. We will often need to believe the unbelievable.

The residents of Ray Gardens in Beckton certainly wish they had.

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