Raped, beaten and abused women who manage to escape their lives of misery are being offered refuge in Sheffield by the City Hearts charity, set up to support human trafficking victims.
Each woman has their own heartbreaking story, with many duped by bogus boyfriends into moving to the UK for a better life – only to find themselves forced to have sex with strangers to pay their way, with their controlling ‘boyfriends’ vanishing or turning into their callous captors.
Others are lured to the UK by the promise of well paid work but quickly find themselves isolated, trapped and at the centre of prostitution rings they feel unable to escape.
Police forces, agencies and charities refer victims to the Salvation Army, which has the Home Office contract for caring for trafficking victims, and in turn men, women and children are referred to specialist organisations including City Hearts to provide them with a safe place to live, medical attention and help to recover from their ordeals. They include female victims trafficked to the UK, forced to work as sex slaves and repeatedly raped who are now giving birth to children in Sheffield and being helped to rebuild their futures in the city.
But a growing number of men are also being offered help and support by the charity, with a safe house recently opening in the city for those from abroad exploited for cheap labour.
City Hearts says most men pay an ‘arranger’ to find them work in the UK in the hope of earning enough for their families to follow and build better lives.
But the reality is exploitation, with the men forced to work endless hours for a pittance while living in a crowded hovel with others chasing the same dream.
City Hearts, whose motto is ‘loving people back to life’, was set up by Jenny Gilpin, who was born after her mother was raped by a gang. She wanted to help other women and young girls who had suffered traumas. Jenny, senior pastor at Hope City Church in Sheffield, initially launched the ‘restore programme’ which involved a five bedroom house in Sheffield being transformed into a safe haven for women coping with unplanned pregnancies, alcoholism, depression, addictions and eating disorders.
A call from South Yorkshire Police to help a victim of human trafficking discovered in Sheffield in 2006 was the seed from which City Hearts grew – and helped 250 exploited men, women and girls last year.
The charity now runs a number of accommodation units across the north of the country, offering emergency accommodation and support to victims initially before helping with long-term plans to help them build new safe lives in the UK or return to their home countries.
The charity also carries out community outreach work, including drop-in sessions for those who have moved on with their lives but still want a point of contact for support or companionship.
Anti-Human Trafficking director Jen Baker said: “We are like an ambulance – we get people stable and ready for the next stage of their recovery.
“They have had their lives stolen from them in so many different ways and are extremely vulnerable, it’s often the vulnerable ones who are targeted in the first place.
“We have to work with a number of agencies to make sure it is safe for victims to return home, if that is their wish, or whether their return would put their families at risk.
“It is an honour and a privilege to be able to help people – we see the worst of humanity and the best of it, often in one day.”
Kirsty Wilson, City Hearts’s women’s manager in Sheffield, said: “Every case is unique, no one story is the same – from Albanian women who fall in love with traffickers, believing them to be their boyfriends, but who arrive in the UK and are treated as sex slaves and forced to work without pay, to the woman locked in a room for seven years, not allowed to look out of the window and left on the side of a road heavily pregnant.”
Gavin Gray, City Hearts’ men’s manager, said: “There is a great need for help for men – our project started in September and already we have had men from all over the world, with all the continents already represented.
“They all have very similar stories – they were led to believe that if they got a job in England they could save up and eventually bring their families over for a better life. That didn’t happen and they found themselves exploited.”
City Hearts founder Jenny said: “The need for our help is every growing. From supporting mums with babies who are the result of rape, helping to build a new life with a survivor of human trafficking who hasn’t seen daylight for seven years, to encouraging a teenager who is struggling with feelings of rejection and hopelessness.”
To try to prevent vulnerable men and women from falling victim to exploitation in the first place, City Hearts runs a project in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where children are sponsored to enable them to attend school.
The hope is that they will use their education to strive for a better life and not become an easy target for those ready to exploit the poor.
With the rise in human trafficking and South Yorkshire Police’s success at prosecuting culprits, the UK Human Trafficking Centre was set up in Sheffield in 2006 to crack down on the illegal trade of men, women.
The centre, run by the National Crime Agency, is now based in Birmingham.
One of the successful prosecutions which led to Sheffield becoming the national hub for police forces sharing intelligence and identifying victims and perpetrators was the jailing of three Eastern European men for a total of 40 years after they trafficked a 15-year-old girl into the UK before forcing her into prostitution.
Ilir Barjami, Shaban Maka and Xhevahir Pisha shipped their Lithuanian victim around the UK, forcing her to work in brothels and selling her to men who repeatedly raped her.
Maka was jailed for 18 years, Barjami for 15 years and Pisha for seven years.
Their victim was brought into the UK on the promise of being offered legitimate holiday work.
She was met at Heathrow airport by Maka and Barjami, who were both living in Park Hill, Sheffield.
The youngster was sold to men up and down the country and forced to worth in brothels.
She escaped after meeting two girls in Kingdom nightclub in Barker’s Pool, Sheffield, and asking them to help her.
* To find out more about City Hearts, in the Mega Centre, Bernard Road, off The Parkway, call 0114 213 2063. The charity is keen for donations of new bedding, pyjamas and underwear for trafficking victims.
The Salvation Army slavery hotline, to report victims of trafficking or suspected offenders, is 0300 3038151. Visit Salvation Army for more details.