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'Victims are promised opportunities for a better life, which never materialise'

Ahead of the UN’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on Monday (30 July), Estelle Blake tells Claire Brine why The Salvation Army is tackling the problem

I care about slavery because it affects everyone

SEVERAL years ago, when working for The Salvation Army in London, Major Estelle Blake met a Chinese woman. ‘She came to London because traffickers promised her a better life,’ remembers Estelle, ‘but she ended up working in a kitchen for 17 years, where she never left the basement. She was saved only when the police found her.’

Today, Estelle is the modern slavery and anti-human trafficking co-ordinator for The Salvation Army in Italy and Greece. She wants to see victims set free and recognising their true worth.

But, perhaps surprisingly, she never envisaged working in such a field.

‘I didn’t feel called by God to work in trafficking – I’m here because The Salvation Army appointed me,’ says Estelle, who was born in South Shields but today lives in Florence. ‘It’s a subject I’ve learnt about, and now my work here makes sense to me. I care about slavery because it affects everyone.’

Estelle’s parents were UK-based Salvation Army officers, who instilled in her the importance of fighting for social justice. When Estelle became a Salvation Army officer, she knew that fighting injustice would be an important part of her Christian ministry.

‘The world undervalues some individuals, telling them they are worth very little,’ she explains. ‘When I chat with sex workers, they tell me that they charge their clients £50. I respond by saying: “You do realise that your value is more than £50 – so much so that Jesus died on the cross for you?”

‘The trouble is, people who are trafficked believe they are worth the value other people are giving them. I want to ask: what value are we putting on our chocolate, our coffee, our clothes and mobile phones, our sexual appetites? We send out the message that we value people by the amount we are prepared to spend on these things.’

Estelle lists the many forms that modern-day slavery can take.

‘There’s sexual exploitation: pornography, paedophilia, escorting, any sexual activity by force. There’s forced labour: making people work on farms, at car washes and building sites, in nail bars and beauty parlours. Then there’s domestic servitude, where people are forced to work in kitchens or as cleaners.

‘Human trafficking can also include selling internet brides and recruiting child soldiers. Finally, there’s organ trafficking, where victims are given a drink to knock them out, then they wake up with a kidney removed.

‘Trafficking is a huge problem in Italy. A lot of the refugees who come here are targeted by traffickers. With false documentation, people can be trafficked easily through Europe.’

But before traffickers can abuse their victims, they have to gain their trust. Usually they do this by promising victims a better life in a new place.

‘If you’re living on the streets and someone offers you a job and a place to stay, chances are you will go with them,’ Estelle explains. ‘Victims are promised opportunities that never materialise. Then the traffickers tell them that they are worthless and, because they are vulnerable, they believe it. Victims also have their documents taken away, so even if they manage to escape, they have nowhere to go.’

The Salvation Army is fighting on several fronts to tackle the global problem of human trafficking. It is contracted by the UK government to manage the support for all rescued victims in England and Wales. In other countries, the Movement focuses on raising awareness of the issue and providing residential care for freed victims.

‘A women’s group at a Salvation Army centre in Sicily has been teaching former trafficked women how to sew and make bags,’ Estelle says. ‘So the women are learning new skills which they can use to make a living. And, while they are working, their children are going to Sunday school.’

While Estelle believes it is vital to help victims, she also argues that attention should be paid to traffickers.

‘I have a heart for people like Zacchaeus in the Bible,’ she says. ‘He was a tax collector who cheated people out of their money, and he changed only when he met Jesus. Traffickers need to meet Jesus. Until that happens, I don’t think the situation will change.

‘But I do see hope. People everywhere can help to make the situation better by choosing carefully where they buy their clothes. We can ask store managers what their modern slavery policy is. If they don’t have one, we can shop somewhere else. We can buy fair trade chocolate, fruit and coffee, and ask for it when we are out in cafés.

‘There’s a saying: “What difference can one person make in the world? They can make a world of difference to one person.” I believe that’s true. If everyone who reads this article chooses to buy only fair trade coffee, for example, just think what a difference it will make!’

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