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Norfolk churches join together to tackle modern slavery  

A summit to discuss modern slavery has taken place at Witard Road Baptist Church in Norwich, encouraging local church communities to be proactive in spotting, reporting and caring for victims of enslavement. Jenny Seal reports.  

EBA slavery summit NorwichAround 70 people representing Norfolk churches and Christian organisations gathered at Witard Road Baptist Church on Saturday (27 January) to hear how people are being enslaved and exploited locally.  
The aim of the meeting was to begin to involve Norfolk’s church congregations in tackling these dark elements of society.

The Modern Slavery Summit was organised by The Church of England’s Clewer Initiative and the Eastern Baptist Association (EBA).  The Revd Dan Pratt, a Baptist minister in Southend-on-Sea and the EBA’s Anti-Slavery Coordinator, opened the meeting with a rousing argument for why the church should be involved in fighting slavery, referencing the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ mission to set the oppressed free. 

As well as the Biblical basis for involvement, he also set out the practical arguments. “The church should be involved in fighting against modern slavery,” Dan said, “because we can make a substantial difference.  Our faith communities are well placed, at a grassroots level.  Our eyes and ears are important. 

“We run foodbanks, homeless shelters, support groups, toddler groups and more.  We have many opportunities to spot the signs of modern slavery around us.  Community-based intelligence is essential.  Through faith communities working in partnership with police and other organisations we can help overcome the disconnection that lets modern slavery survive”.

Mark English, the Human Trafficking and Organised Crime Co-ordinator for Norfolk and Suffolk Police provided local examples of exploitation and enslavement.  These shocking stories included workers in car washes being paid a fraction of the minimum wage, people trapped in domestic servitude, factory workers being controlled as forced labour and women being held hostage as sex workers.  

He recalled a case of domestic slavery in Norwich, involving “a victim, who was born and bred in the countryside of Norfolk, and the offenders who were people born and bred in Norwich.  They were the kind of people that when the guy was washing their floor, they were encouraging their nine-year old son to kick him in the head.”

The former detective set out the vulnerabilities that can be exploited by criminal businesspeople to entangle victims into slavery – citing addictions, homelessness, being in the UK illegally, threats on family and language barriers.  He also listed indicators that ought to raise suspicion.

“Information and intelligence are the absolute keys to cracking this” he said.  “Police officers can’t be everywhere. Local authorities can’t be everywhere.  But you are all members of the public. If you think something is not right it probably isn’t right.  Just do something about it – get on the phone to the Slavery helpline.”

Frank Hanson, from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, a body funded and accountable to the Home Office, set out a series of signs for spotting people trapped in slavery including poor physical appearance, a lack of personal effects, controlled movement, isolation and fear of authorities.

Within his presentation he showed some distressing photographs of the impoverished and dirty circumstances that some forced labour workers have to live in. He also described the process of criminals setting up multiple bank accounts for those under their control, in order to access loans where the burden of debt is on the victim.

Cristina Gavrilovic, the Anti-Slavery Partnership Coordinator for Kent and Essex Police, spoke with passion, humour and insight about how she is encouraging partnership working and creative thinking to tackle modern slavery in those counties.

She said: “This forum is exactly what we are looking for – more people to know about it, more people to understand what it looks like and more people to go out there and challenge this particular criminality”.

“Our victims are very reluctant to talk to the police,” she said. “They won’t come to a police force or a local council, however they will go to a church, they will go to a charity, they will speak to their community leaders.”

Following a short break to eat packed lunches Caroline Virgo from The Clewer Initiative invited delegates to attend a follow up evening to explore and work out a strategic response to modern slavery in Norfolk.  

The Clewer Initiative is a three-year national project to enable Church of England dioceses and wider church networks to develop strategies to detect modern slavery in their communities and help provide victim support and care.

“We believe,” Caroline said, “that because the Church of England is present in all communities - as indeed many other churches are - that we are uniquely positioned to help eradicate modern slavery.”

“Our hope is that whatever people decide to do going forwards, that it will be done as a joint piece of work between at least the Church of England and the Baptists, and hopefully with other churches as well if they want to be part of it.”

Dan Pratt, responding to a question about the support given to victims, concluded the meeting as he had opened it with inspiring words.  He said: “Imagine if just five per cent of churches welcomed people who had experienced modern slavery into their communities to find safety, to find protection, the difference that could make to survivors of modern slavery. It would transform our churches as well. It would transform our mission to be more who Christ has called us to be.”

Photo (L-R): Cristina Gavrilovic, Mark English, Dan Pratt and Frank Hanson at the Modern Slavery Summit in Norwich

If you would like to join with others to be part of the ongoing conversation about how Norfolk’s churches can be part of a strategic and practical response to modern slavery please contact clewerinitiative@churchofengland.org.

The Clewer Iniative has produced a Lent Challenge and other free resources for churches which you can find here.    

If you have any information or suspicions about what could be slavery or exploitation please call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700. 

This story was originally published by Network Norfolk, and is republished with permission.

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