01:34, October 16 51 0 theguardian.com

2019-10-16 01:34:04
‘I carry my experience like a dead body. But this flat means I can start again’

When Endzela Dvali came to the UK from eastern Europe to stay with a family friend she had no idea that her virginity would be sold to a stranger for £5,000.

Dvali, in her early 20s at the time, was drugged and raped repeatedly over three weeks by a Russian man old enough to be her father. It had been arranged by the woman she was staying with, who had taken all Dvali’s personal belongings and locked her in the house. “I really don’t remember everything,” she says. “I was unconscious most of the time, but there are some details I can’t bring myself to speak about. It’s like a dead body I have to carry with me all the time.”

When the man left, Dvali went downstairs, where she saw the woman she was staying with passed out, drunk, on the sofa. She broke the window and escaped. A passerby saw her crying in the street and gave her some money and pointed her in the direction of the police.

Four years later, Dvali is living in a flat provided by the Amari project, which offers up to a year of supported accommodation in London for survivors of sexual exploitation.

The project was set up in 2016 by the charity Solace Women’s Aid, in partnership with Commonweal Housing, in response to a lack of suitable accommodation for this group of women. Eva Markova, a specialist support worker for the Amari project, says it is the only one in the UK to give women who have been sexually exploited through trafficking or prostitution the opportunity to live alone, supported by a caseworker.

“These women have never rented a property in the UK and they don’t have independent living skills,” says Markova. “They don’t understand the benefits system, and some women have never had bank accounts before. Sometimes I have to explain what council tax is, and why they get water bills.”

The journey to an Amari project flat can be complicated, as Dvali’s case shows. When a victim of trafficking first escapes, they may be identified by either a police officer, a charity, a safeguarding team at a local authority, or by an immigration official when they go to claim asylum. If they consent, they will then be referred to both the Home Office’s national referral mechanism (NRM) – the framework for identifying and assisting victims of modern slavery – and the Salvation Army for support. Often, they will also be going through the asylum process and staying in temporary accommodation. If they are recognised as a victim of modern slavery, they can be granted up to one year and one day leave to remain in the UK. When Dvali received this decision, however, she risked being evicted from temporary accommodation.

At the Amari project, Markova helps with ongoing immigration problems, as well as accessing council housing services, dealing with bills and emotional support. Since its inception, the Amari project has helped 20 women. Dvali is among the eight who are currently being supported in an Amari flat, while 12 have moved on to independent housing, including Aferdita Shehu from Albania. She was granted five years’ leave to remain in the UK and her two children were allowed to join her. Together, they have been housed in a council flat in Lambeth, south London. Shehu says the project provided her with a home that has made her feel safe for the first time in her life. “For someone like me, who has been through a lot, it’s like you are born again,” she says. “Now I will start to live another life and leave everything behind.”

But demand for the project – which has 10 properties in south and east London – far outstrips supply.

The National Crime Agency’s latest report shows that 6,993 potential victims of trafficking were referred to the NRM in 2018, a 36% increase on the 2017 total. (It stresses that these figures do not provide an analysis of the picture of modern slavery in the UK, which charities estimate to be much higher.) Nearly 2,000 of those were women who said they were trafficked for sexual exploitation.

According to the Salvation Army, the number of women trafficked for sexual exploitation receiving its help in the year to July 2018 was up 19% from 2017 figures. A total of 7,724 people were supported by the Salvation Army and its partner organisations between July 2011 and June 2018. Up to half of those are women who were trafficked for sexual exploitation (other reasons include for domestic servitude and forced labour). The largest proportion of victims were in London, followed by the north-east and West Midlands.

Cuts, changes to welfare benefit support, and the ongoing housing crisis continue to have a severe impact on vulnerable client groups, and sexually exploited women are among some of the most marginalised in society. As single women, they are often not considered a priority by local authorities for housing. The Snowdrop project, based in Sheffield, helps sexually exploited women to get housing, education and therapeutic support after they have been recognised as victims of modern slavery. But there are large swaths of the country providing little support. According to Snowdrop founder, Lara Bundock, this increases the risk that victims will be trafficked again. “Where services don’t exist, it’s like somebody stepping off a cliff edge,” she says. “There isn’t likely to be much success moving forwards because life is so hard to navigate.”

Emilie Martin, operations manager for the anti-trafficking and modern slavery services at the Salvation Army, stresses the varying help that women require. “Not all victims have the same needs. Some are ready and just want to move on, but there are others who need years of support because of the extent of the trauma they’ve been through.”

However, only a very few suspected victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation ever get any support because most cases referred to the NRM fail. In 2018, just 17% of victims who applied to the NRM were officially recognised as being trafficked.

The Home Office says that new statutory guidance is expected this autumn that will set out the roles and responsibilities of public authorities in identifying and protecting victims of modern slavery. A Home Office spokesman says: “We continue to improve the support provided through the NRM. This will ensure that the quality of care is maintained throughout the country and meeting people’s needs as they recover.” He adds that the new guidance will also set out the support available to victims of modern slavery and how it is accessed.

Back in south London, Dvali is applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK and is worried about where she’ll end up after her time at the Amari project finishes. Women still find it difficult to secure housing after their tenancy with the Amari project ends; there is no guarantee that they will get put into a council flat. Many are placed in private housing, which is more precarious and more expensive than council accommodation. For now, she feels safe for the first time since her arrival in the UK. Although she has depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and struggles to get out of bed some days, Dvali knows that Markova is only a text message away.

“My only hope now is to settle down and recover,” she says. “I don’t want to carry that dead body all my life. My future is grey and I’m trying to paint something to make it more colourful.”

Some names have been changed

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