NESTAC: Hearing the Silenced Stories of Slavery

NESTAC celebrated Black History Month 2021 by hosting a webinar on the impact of Domestic Servitude on the mental health of migrant women in contemporary society, Friday 29th October at 12:30-14:30pm. The session explored the distress of women trapped in a silent form of Modern Slavery known as ‘Domestic Servitude’.

Tandrima, NESTAC coordinator for BAME groups focused on Violence Against Women & the effects of immigration on mental health, and an asylum seeker herself, gave a keynote address to the webinar.

Hello everyone, it’s wonderful to see you all here, thank you for joining us today and giving us your time. Let me introduce myself: I’m Tandrima. I’m a migrant mother who is fighting to protect my 2 daughters from abuse and persecution, to give them a life of dignity. I’m a friend who enjoys a coffee date with my girlfriends with some catch up and gossip. I’m also a woman who wants to turn my life around to do justice to my potential by believing in myself and using the opportunities that come my way.

I have been volunteering for a few years now in various organisations, focusing on working with vulnerable women who are seeking to recover from the trauma of abuse. I too am a survivor of abuse, and so I understand the courage and determination it takes to finally break out of that vicious circle. I have seen the absolute dedication of those who run these organisations in working to achieve justice for women fleeing to safety and struggling to cope with their circumstances. This has not only strengthened my resolve but also helped me to educate myself on this issue. In everything I do I aim to ease the pain for those many women around me who need relief and support.

I’m privileged to run a group called HerStory in Salford, for BAME women who are seeking asylum, are refugees or face challenges in their lives, HerStory is working closely with NESTAC, to build our capacity. I have been supported by NESTAC to join the training to be a mindfulness practitioner at MIND in Salford, they are also supporting me in my application to being accepted by Salford University to study counselling and psychology. In my current role at NESTAC, as a coordinator for the BAME groups focused on Violence Against Women and exploring the effects of immigration on mental health. I’ve been trained in peer mentoring and have run successful workshops around social and cultural issues like FGM and DV as well. I’m also involved with the EAR4YOU project that sought to give support to the BAME community in Greater Manchester through the pandemic; this includes people who suffered grief due to loss of a relative, miscarriages or faced low moods due to the general fatigue of the lockdown. Many BAME clients calling the EAR4YOU project are now distressed because of Long-Covid effects and having to take too many jabs.

Still trying to make some sense of the ‘why me’ factor, I find there’s more to the suffering than the abuse inflicted on us. Many women who go through abuse are subjected to immigration control, many living without status even if you first entered the country legally. We have women in our groups who have been tricked into coming here as wives, tourists, or by the promise of a better life, only to find themselves subjected to domestic servitude. Some of the incidents are horrific, cruel and life threatening. Some incidents have made us choke with emotion. Emotional abuse is underestimated. But we are proud for the women who managed to escape and take control of their lives.

Of all factors, the most disappointing is the feeling of being let down by UK law, which instead of protecting us, asks for our immigration status. We are victims, but often end up with a status of criminals (based on false reports by our abusers, who are often smarter than us). Women also feel that their issues are not taken seriously if they come from a BAME background, where most of the time DS is viewed as DV – acceptable according to a narrow definition of ‘cultural norms’ – and the woman is left to sort it out herself. DV can be part of DS, but not always. In the same way FGM and other forms of abuse may intertwine. DS is an ongoing emotional and mental dorm of abuse, as the woman is kept in the household as a domestic servant, sometimes managing to sleep less than 5 hours sleep after working the whole day. You end up serving your partner, your in-laws, the extended family, even if they do not share the same accommodation. How can you report this to the police, or to someone else? It becomes our NORMAL due to cultural systems, but it is NOT and should never be. Yet if a woman brought to the UK in a sham marriage reports her ‘family’ for keeping her in servitude she finds herself isolated from her own community. Time and again, we find women not coming forward to report a crime due to their uncertain status (or lack of it). The rules are unclear and confusing to most people, and to women who don’t understand the language, have no experience of legal procedures, and are left to navigate the system on their own, it’s a nightmare. Being personally subjected to something similar was what decided me to get involved with NESTAC research and exposing DS in our communities. Such communities may flaunt their protection for women, pride themselves to being ‘close knit’, yet, when challenged by a woman asking for safety and her place in society, they back out and look the other way. These are crimes happening in our communities here in Greater Manchester, in households around us, happening within places that we assume to be safe.

Most of these vulnerable women are afraid to ask for help and accept their fate quietly, fearing for their lives and for the fate of their families back home. Others are bound by financial restrictions and social restrictions and unable to look for options outside the abusive condition. Women told us how they feared the immigration officers more than their perpetrators, as they had been told repeatedly by their abusers about beatings and lockup cruelty from the police in the UK. They live in fear of being found without a visa outside the circle of abuse, worse still, of being sent back home because they chose to speak up against their situation and ‘betrayed’ their community. The system is hostile and unforgiving to migrant women anyway: for those who are victims of abuse, who have difficulties with personal agency and language, the need to provide evidence, particularly in DS, that is almost impossible to prove, turns into a trap that threatens to engulf them with depression and anxiety.

The multiple barriers to accessing the guidance that would help a woman fight her inner battles inhibit her agency. Such desperate women find little or no support for mental health breakdown. Sometimes this is due to a lack of information, sometimes due to the woman having NRPF, sometimes because she is afraid of being ostracized for complaining. And, from what we hear in our sessions, many women are unsure if the counsellors would understand them from the cultural background perspective.

Next is the legal system, with immigration status being the biggest factor. Either on dependent visas or ones that have expired an abused woman is left to forge a way ahead with very little knowledge. She does as she is told, signs where she is told to, and finds herself in a worse position than before. This could be due to language or knowledge barriers, or due to living under control for a prolonged time. This is an exhausting and time-consuming process and a woman trying to understand her situation needs so much learning that it easily becomes overwhelming. The frustrating process could be made easier if the information and support were clearer and involved relevant multi agencies.

Consultation is essential. In our sessions women put forward suggestions of checks and information at the point of visa application in their home countries. A strong united opinion was for the woman to be registered with a GP and required to attend regular drop ins in a community centre at least every 3 months, for example. Among other suggestions: when the necessity is to find a safe refuge, that help, or support should be provided before looking at a woman’s visa. Last, but not least, the threat that the perpetrators or abusers could lose their status or visa would also be a deterrent. We now have a strong and safe platform through NESTAC to share our opinions, to welcome other women who are escaping and need peer support, also to find ways of helping those who are still trapped.

Terrifyingly none of this is new. But, reducing people to impersonal numbers as the Home Office does in its narrative of ‘economic migrants,’ lack of credibility, and ‘illegal entry’, makes it easy to dismiss the tremendous suffering resulting from these violations of basic human rights. We need to develop strategies to implement change.

First, we hope our sessions and recommendations will supply detail that help people who support us to focus their arguments and shape future policies and laws. Women who endure these abuses should be given temporary leave to give them time and opportunity to make their case – not dismissed and thrown on the scrap heap.

Second, we hope to establish networks of support that will share practice and form a powerful lobby for change. One of the issues on which we could focus is that of NRPF along with DS. The refusal to allow abused women access to public funds condemns them to staying within an abusive situation, facing destitution, suffering further exploitation, or worse. All with devastating effects on their mental health, and, if they have children, on their sense of security and stability.

Third we want to ensure that the situation of abused BAME women – migrant, asylum seeker, failed asylum seekers or dependent refugee – is never left out of existing campaigns around abuse and its impact on mental health, and never dismissed as an acceptable cultural norm.

I and all the other women on the DS platform call for support in these three areas and welcome any suggestions to advance understanding, empowerment, and change.

I would like to thank NESTAC, University of Central Lancashire, and the Greater Manchester
Combined Authority and Program challengers’ team
for taking a lead to focus on this specific issue.


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