Hoa* was brought to the attention of Hibiscus Initiatives’ project worker by other Vietnamese women who were concerned that she might be a minor. The project worker held regular one-to-one sessions with Hoa and, with the help of an interpreter, she talked about her experiences and disclosed that she was 16 years old.
The prison authorities and social services in the area were informed of the possibility that a minor was being held in prison, whilst the Hibiscus project worker informed Hoa’s criminal solicitor about the situation and referred Hoa to an immigration solicitor. The project worker also referred Hoa to an organisation that worked with underage victims of trafficking.
Hoa looked scared and anxious during her first sessions. She was often tearful and appeared to have deep-rooted trust issues. It took some time before she started to relax in the Hibiscus worker’s presence. It was clear that Hoa recounted her experiences haltingly, as the memories were so traumatic. While it is very common for our clients (foreign national women) to be visibly upset in a prison environment – especially at the beginning of their imprisonment – Hoa appeared particularly vulnerable, possibly an indicator of her youth and her frightening life experiences.
As a result of her harrowing experience and exploitation, it became evident that she needed specialist ongoing support within a multi-disciplinary setting, including psychological counselling and support from trauma specialists.
Hoa has received a positive conclusive grounds decision recognising her as a victim of human trafficking. Her criminal charges were dropped as the judge recognised that she was trafficked for forced criminal activity. She claimed asylum and was released to NASS accommodation where she has been waiting for the decision on her asylum claim.
Hoa previously lived with her maternal grandmother after her parents got divorced and her father left. She dropped out of school at 8 years old, and helped her grandmother around the house and on the farm for the following two years. Her grandmother was approached by some people who offered to send her granddaughter abroad for a better life. They would provide food, accommodation and work. The grandmother agreed, and was told not to worry about money as they could lend her the necessary funds and she could pay them back later. They also arranged all the paperwork required to travel.
Hoa was taken to the airport to travel to Russia. Once in Russia, the job she was promised was not there and the person who made the travel arrangements vanished. She was put in contact with other Vietnamese people who allowed her to live with them, but in exchange she was asked to help them with their business at the market. She worked there for two years and described it as a difficult work that was hard to cope with. One day she called her grandmother to tell her about the labour and how difficult it was for her. The grandmother contacted one of the people who organised the travel and complained that it wasn’t what he promised for her granddaughter. The organiser told the grandmother that he could arrange for Hoa to go to the UK to be trained in nail care services. The grandmother agreed but in exchange she had to pay 600 million Vietnamese Dong. She borrowed the money, and Hoa came to the UK.
She was transported together with five other people in a lorry. She was coached on what to say if they were caught. She was not allowed to reveal who the organisers were and she was told to increase her age if asked because she was the youngest. Hoa was told that if she did not comply, her and her family’s lives would be in danger. They arrived in France, where she would remain for about a year, before being placed into a container with other people and taken to the UK. Due to a lack of air, Hoa could not breathe while being transported and attempted to alert the driver. When the driver realised that there were people at the back of his vehicle he called the police.
At the police station Hoa was afraid to disclose her real age, due to the threats made by the organiser. Hoa told the police that she was sixteen, believing that to be the age of an adult. She was fourteen at that time. The police informed social services and Hoa was taken to a foster family. She remembers a house with many rooms filled with bunk beds and other children. Hoa disappeared the same night. She explained that when she went outside of the house, she got lost.
On the street, she approached a person that looked like a Vietnamese national and explained what had happened to her. The person took her to his home. She started to change residences frequently. She left the house only to mingle with the local Vietnamese community. One day she went to the town centre to get some coffee, when she recognised a person from the group that organised her travel abroad. He told her that he could help her with finding work. She was taken to work at a place full of wires, which scared her. Hoa refused to work there and asked for another type of work. The man threatened her with prostitution if she would not take this work. Having no choice, Hoa stayed and received a list of instructions detailing how to look after the plants. She was not allowed to leave and was told that she was being observed all the time. The people brought her food regularly. She developed a chest infection from the conditions in which she lived. After police raided the house, she was arrested and taken to prison.
*Not real name