Modern slavery survivor tricked by Rotterdam gang at 18 and sex trafficked across Europe

  • Ilja Abbattista has been carrying a traumatic secret for 30 years - she was a victim of modern slavery

A businesswoman has spoken out about how she was tricked and then threatened by a gang at 18, before being sex trafficked across Europe.

Having upset a gang in Rotterdam in the Netherlands 30 years ago, Ilja Abbattista was told she "owed them a debt".

She had to choose between having her little finger cut off, having a family member killed, or working for a week.

But that one week in a gentlemen's club turned into her being sexually exploited for two-and-a-half years.

Now living in Northamptonshire and running several businesses, Ms Abbattista has bravely waived her anonymity to speak for other victims of modern slavery - including her friends who she said were "murdered".

An old photo of Ilja Abbattista Credit: ITV News Anglia

Born to an English father and Dutch mother, Ms Abbattista spent her childhood living between Northamptonshire and the Netherlands.

She ended up in care in the Netherlands, and when she left, she found herself struggling for money.

The gang originally promised her a visa through marriage, but that plan changed and when she "talked to somebody" about it, she was punished with the three options.

"That night, I had to work in a gentlemen's club, and I had to drink a lot of drinks in order to earn some money and I had to go upstairs with them."

She continued: "I think I was so shell-shocked, I think I was so ashamed, I think I was absolutely appalled with myself."

"I'm shaking now just thinking back to that moment," Ms Abbattista said as she recalled walking up to the club's reception, and being given a "working name".

"I recall so well, that's the moment that I just thought - Ilja's gone, that's it. She can't cope with this."

Ilja Abbattista, a businesswoman in Northamptonshire, runs a cookery school. Credit: ITV News Anglia

She continued: "I kind of believed for a second that maybe I would get some of that money back, because I believed that I paid my debt. But obviously, it became very clear very soon that I wasn't going to get any of it."

Ms Abbattista described how she would sometimes work around the clock - working at a flat during the day and then at a club overnight.

And in the morning, she would have to entertain a house full of men, "because I needed to learn how to dance for them. It was so humiliating," she said.

If she fell asleep on the job or did not do well, she would be beaten - a dislocated hip or bruised ribs among the injuries she suffered.

"Escaping initially was definitely not an option because I felt that wherever I went, these people knew exactly where I'd been, what I'd been doing, who I'd been speaking to," she said.

"There were other occasions where girls had either escaped and they'd found them again, and they would do the most horrendous things to these girls, and we would have to watch."

Ilja Abbattista at home with her cat. Credit: ITV News Anglia

But visualising a successful and happy future kept her alive, she said, and she eventually managed to escape the gang and made her way to the UK.

She said: "I was free from whatever was happening Holland and the other countries, but you're not free.

"Because you're then having to deal with the mass of feeling, of emotions, of - 'was this my own fault?' The shame, the taboo - all of those feelings that you're carrying on your own."

But Ms Abbattista never felt confident enough to go to the police.

She described how on one occasion, she had gone to the police station with another victim to report a crime, but saw one of the gang members there. Fearing for her own safety, she lied to the police to say she was not being exploited and her friend was lying.

Ms Abbattista has now joined up with charity Causeway, to help other survivors.

In the UK, an estimated 136,000 people are trapped and exploited, according to the charity.

Ms Abbattista said: "By speaking publicly, people can see that there is no stereotypical person this happens to, and it makes the situation real.

"Because if I'm behind a board, it could be anybody. Now you can see my face, you can see that it really is me, it really did happen to me and to countless people.

"And I'm also speaking up for those people who are no longer here, because whilst I was in that situation, there were people who were dying - they were murdered. So I've got to speak up for them."

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