Nancy Esiovwa says the five years since she escaped slavery have been as traumatic as her captivity. Now she is fighting the Home Office in court
Ten years ago, when she was being held as a slave in a family house in Bedfordshire, beaten and working without pay, the only thing that kept Nancy Esiovwa from despair was the belief that she would one day be free. Now she is. But her life since gaining freedom has, she says, been as traumatic and desperate as her experience at the hands of her traffickers.
Shortly after she was identified by the Home Office as a victim of modern slavery in 2014, Esiovwa was left without any kind of support. She ended up on the streets, homeless and destitute and facing violence and assault. The Home Office has turned down her application for asylum and refused to grant her leave to remain. She now lives in daily fear of facing immigration detention or being sent back to Nigeria – the same country to which her traffickers, who have threatened to kill her, have returned.
Her story is not unique. The Home Office has been under increasing pressure to improve their treatment of slavery victims. Frontline agencies say people are being abandoned and failed in their thousands by a system that is supposed to protect and support them.
Esiovwa has decided to fight back. She is taking the Home Office to court over its decision to deny her leave to remain, arguing that it failed in its legal obligation to consider her trafficking status and right to access ongoing counselling and mental health services. The case follows a landmark ruling in 2018 that forced the government to lower the threshold for allowing trafficking victims leave to remain; currently, only 12% of victims who apply get a positive decision.
“I don’t feel that my trafficking status, or my very urgent need to get mental health support to recover from what I’ve been through, both at the hands of my traffickers and at the hands of the Home Office, have been considered,” she says.
“Everyone thinks that when you escape from slavery it is a happy ending, but that’s not true. Even though the government has accepted I’ve been a victim of slavery, they have just seen me as an immigration problem that they want to get rid of.”
If successful, her judicial review could pave the way for others to force the Home Office to reconsider their cases.
The isolation that Esiovwa has experienced has also led her to launch a network of modern slavery survivors in West Yorkshire, where she is now based. “For years I could find nobody to help me,” she says. “So I thought that we survivors need to start helping each other.”
Hers is the first local chapter of a groundbreaking national Survivor Alliance programme, funded and supported by the Rights Lab, a department researching modern slavery at the University of Nottingham. The West Yorkshire alliance, which now has 53 members, has given Esiovwa strength.
“In a trafficking situation you are isolated and all your self-esteem is destroyed. Yet, in that first meeting, I sat in a room with other survivors who were all experiencing the same problems and felt I had found a community and we can do more together than we can separately,” she says.
As well as providing support, the group has started campaigning for survivors to be given a voice in shaping government policy on how to protect slavery victims. It was her work with the alliance, Esiowva says, that gave her courage to launch her legal challenge.
“We are stepping into a gap that charities and government agencies aren’t filling, because we know what we need better than they do,” she says. “Now there are loads of charities and organisations saying that they are there to help survivors, but none of the members of the network have felt that they have been listened to or supported.”
Minh Dang, coordinator of the Survivor Alliance, says: “Too often survivors find they are used as case studies or by the media in the name of raising awareness, but their experiences and views need to be at the centre of any policy being created to respond to their needs.”
The government has pledged to reform the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework for identifying and assisting victims. Yet campaigners say a lack of support means thousands are being forced into destitution or re-trafficked. Earlier this month, a legal challenge forced the Home Office to agree to indefinitely extend support past the statutory 45 days it currently provides to modern slavery victims.
Esiovwa says her experience of the NRM was “pure hell”. She claims she was put in unsafe accommodation, an experience that has led to long-term mental health consequences and multiple suicide attempts.
“I was told I was going to a safe house, but instead I was put in a B&B. The men staying there thought myself and other trafficked women were prostitutes and we were constantly harassed and propositioned,” she says. “Nobody explained what my options were or treated me with any dignity.”
Esiovwa says that if she fails to get leave to remain, she has no idea what she’ll do.
“My mental health has been deteriorating and I’m very scared of being sent back to Nigeria, where my traffickers are waiting for me,” she says. “But I want my life back. I want to do good for myself and others who have gone through the same experiences. I have to believe that my life can get better, and this is my last chance.”