The most harrowing story of human trafficking I've ever heard

There is no smile quite like it. A diminutive, slight young Vietnamese woman walks through a London park - new trainers, a spring in her step.

It’s no wonder she’s happy. When she first arrived in the capital, Thanh had no idea where she was. She was kept in a basement with seven others by her gangmaster - forced into sex work, allowed out only to pack vegetables under a watchful eye: otherwise kept under lock and key.

Now after an astonishing 30 years - she is free.

Of all the many harrowing stories I’ve heard from trafficking victims - I have never heard one like Thanh’s.

First trafficked at the age of five with her parents out of Vietnam into China, she and her family were promised a better life: the old lie at the heart of modern slavery.

What it heralded was a lifetime of exploitation. Forced labour, sex work: at the age of 15, Thanh had to sleep with so many men it left her with permanent damage to her spine.

She was trafficked to Russia to pick fruit, across a continent to France for sex work in a forest encampment: separated from her 11-year-old son and thrown into a refrigerated lorry to be smuggled to England.

The litany of abuse makes you cover your mouth.

Julie Etchingham listening to Thanh's harrowing story. Credit: ITV News

In London, she’s taken to the basement. There seems to be no light - literally and figuratively - until one day she seizes an opportunity to flee barefoot. It’s a daring and desperate move - as she re-lives it you are willing her on.

Thanh’s tortured life story only takes a better turn in another bleak circumstance: a lump in her breast makes her go to a doctor and at last there is help: treatment for cancer, and eventually a recognition by the authorities that she is a victim of modern slavery.

Her story is a devastating insight into the coercion and control perpetrated by human traffickers.

The chains they use are psychological: a cruel cycle of raised promises, never-ending debt, threats of violence, not just to the victim but to their family network whom the trafficker will make it their business to know.

And they are also physical: beatings, incarceration - intolerable living conditions enough to break the strongest human being.

Thanh is now finding her feet with the charity Refuge and their extraordinary team helping victims of modern slavery.

Thanh is now free after over three decades of brutality. Credit: ITV News

She’s found the deepest joy in the reunion with her son. Her beaming face lights up as she talks about her new life.

We need to hear her story. We need to know she is here - like hundreds of others in our towns and cities - brought from all corners of the planet with false hopes and false promises.

Who knows how many feet walked above the basement where she was living: the ancient cruelty and scandal of slavery alive and present in the 21st century.

Thanh's story in her own words

  • Life as a sex worker

After 15 years old, they like me to sleep with other men...sometimes 10, sometimes more than 10 in one day.

My back is not straight, partly because how I've been used as a sex slave.

– .
  • The brutality of the traffickers

I remember when I was so tired I could not carry the work the asked me to do and I remember they beat me so hard that I believe I was going to die.

And my parents were there and witnessed it, and we were so scared ever since.

– .
  • Forced to give up her child

I remember I was thinking that I have already lost a child in China, so when I was in France, when they told me that I need to separate with my son.

I thought no way that I would see my son again, because I have already lost one. I remember that night I held my son and told him if there is a chance for you to escape, don't think anything - just try to escape.

Run, run, don't think about me, don't think about anything.

– .
  • Her escape

At one point I gave up hope.

But one day, I think the trafficker forgot the keys on the table in the corner and the Chinese man in there asks me do you want to escape, do you want to go? I remember, I said yes, we escaped. I remember, I did not have my shoes on, I ran with my bare feet.

We ran and ran for about an hour.

– .
  • Her message to other victims

My message would be to carry on, try your best - a better life and future is ahead of you.

– .
  • Her own future

There's lots of things that I want to do; I want to get a job, go back and see Vietnam...and to explore places, holidays - I would love to do it one day.

– .