It’s estimated that between 12 and 27 million people are are currently living in slavery around the world. Human trafficking survivor Sophie Hayes recounts her own story of slavery and escape in her memoir, “Trafficked.”
The book is meant to spread awareness, battle common misconceptions and engage people in the fight against human trafficking. Sophie’s story began when her boyfriend, whom she’d known for years, took her on a trip from her hometown in England to Italy. During that trip, he forced her into sex trafficking to pay off his debts. He stole her passport, money and phone and threatened to kill her family if she tried to escape.
She did escape and is now safe and back home in England under the assumed name “Sophie Hayes” for her protection. To help other trafficking survivors, Sophie created the Sophie Hayes Foundation. I spoke to Sophie about her reasons for writing about her experience, ways people can help survivors and how to spot signs of trafficking.
ACT: Why was it important to you to write about your trafficking experience?
SOPHIE: I didn’t want what happened to me to just be for nothing. It was really important for me to share my story to really highlight that Sophie could be anyone, to raise awareness and change people’s stereotypes and perceptions of what they perceive a trafficked person to be.
ACT: What do you want readers to take away from the book?
SOPHIE: I absolutely want them to take away the message that Sophie could be anybody. Sophie could be the girl you went to school with. Sophie could be the girl you hang out with on your work lunch break. Anyone could be at risk of being trafficked, regardless of background or religion or nationality, if they are in the hands of a trafficker.
ACT: What has the response been like?
The response has been incredible, actually. We've had a lot of male readers, which I hadn't expected, to be honest. I assumed the demographic would be far more female-focused. Some men reading it have said they've paid for sex in the past, and had no idea this could have been the situation. It’s really made them think differently.
A lot of parents use it to help try to protect their daughters. It’s also raised awareness for the general public, because when they think of human trafficking, they imagine a certain type of person. The takeaway is that this is so present and it’s happening right now, across the whole world.
ACT: What are some stereotypes about human trafficking that need to be laid to rest?
SOPHIE: One stereotype is that it’s the victim’s fault, that they got around the wrong crowd. Another is that they’re from a very poor background, that they have no home, no future, and it’s their only way to escape. The more and more we create that image, the more we fuel that stereotype, we rule out a whole group of people who are at risk.
As an example of that, we had a case about 18 months ago where I was asked to give some advice to a young girl. She was one of the European ambassadors’ daughters. When I tell the story about the ambassador’s daughter, people are generally shocked, because they don’t assume she’d be in danger of trafficking.
She was being "groomed," and the person grooming her was a human trafficker. Grooming is the lead-up. In the majority of cases we hear about, a woman is trafficked through a relationship. In the grooming process, the trafficker tries to really understand the individual and become closer to them, isolating them from their friends. Gifts are also a common part of the grooming process, because it makes the girl feel she’s the only one in the world, and the person she’s with cares for her. The gift-giving part is like what you might find in a normal relationship, but the grooming relationship tends to go a lot farther. It’s the isolation piece that’s really apparent.
Photo:(Joshua Earle Photography)
ACT: How can people get involved with your org, the Sophie Hayes Foundation?
SOPHIE: Oh, in so many ways! We have a real kind of heart for survivor support and a survivor network. We want the girls to be heard and their voices used to be part of the solution. People can spread the message that Sophie can be anyone, get engaged, educate others.
We have a Speak Hope campaign, which is essentially notes of hope. We ask people from all over the world to send in short messages of hope and encouragement. It sounds like a really basic thing to do, but in all of our lives, no matter what the situation, we've all needed some kind of encouragement to know somebody cares and somebody thinks about you. We give these out to the safe houses to girls who have been trafficked. It’s so powerful to them, and they want to read these messages. The girls who have started to go through their therapy and get support then want to become activists. So they then start to write notes of hope, which they write for other girls to let them know they've been through this, and they’re not alone.
Financial donations are also brilliant, because they help us sustain all of our casework. But in terms of something that’s really easy, it’s about spreading the message and sending encouraging words.
ACT: How else can people fight human trafficking?
Beyond our foundation, there are many ways. On a political level, you can lobby to help get better laws to protect victims and create mechanisms to prevent this. You can also encourage different service providers — like health care professionals or police officers — to get involved and challenge what’s going on and provide better services and better care. The more the message is shared, the more we can unite globally. It’s still quite a taboo topic, [to the point that] people don’t know this actually happens, and people need to recognize it’s a lot closer to home. The UK and the US, two of the most developed countries in the world, are also arguably two countries who need to work on this issue.
ACT: What are some signs that someone might be trafficked? If someone suspects another person of being trafficked, what can they do?
SOPHIE: There are so many different helplines, particularly the Polaris Project. They have 24-hour helplines. The police should always be a point of contact.
In terms of signs, if a girl is being groomed, you find that traffickers like to isolate their victims. They encourage the girls to distance themselves from their friends and families. Victims tend to become more withdrawn, a lot quieter. There are also physical signs, and we should never ignore any physical signs of abuse.
I think it would be important to look at the clients as well, because that’s often stereotyped, too. Men who are professionals — doctors, lawyers, police — are clients. When people think of clients of someone who’s being trafficked, they don't believe it’s general society. This shows that education is really important, and we can't continue to demand the supply.
There’s one other thing people can do. In my book, one of the things I had in place was a code word with my mum. [Editor's Note: This was something mundane but not commonly said that Sophie and her mom agreed they would say to the other if anything bad happened to either one of them. It eventually enabled Sophie to tell her mom she was in trouble without anyone around her knowing what she was saying.] That, actually, was a huge help, and we've found it’s helped our readers, too. Many people have now put a code word in place with a trusted relative, friend or teacher. Should they be in a situation in which they feel something isn't quite right, they have a code word they can use to get a message to someone who can help get them out of the situation.