Social Justice

I was groomed by drug gangs and forced into slavery, aged 9. I'm lucky to have made it out alive

At least 27,000 children in England are at risk of being exploited by organised crime gangs each year. Sosa Henkoma was one of them

modern slavery

This is Sosa Henkoma, who was exploited by criminal gangs as a child and is now working to change the lives of other young people. Image: Causeway

Sosa Henkoma remembers being 11 years old and having a gun held to his head.

“I thought I was dead,” he recalls. “At that moment time, it was like: what the hell is going on here? Am I going to die? Am I leaving? I don’t want to die. I wanted to go back home. I would have preferred being beaten up at home than being killed here.”

Henkoma is a survivor of child criminal exploitation and he counts himself lucky that he made it out alive. Now he is working to raise awareness of the horrors of modern slavery and exploitation and to change the lives of other young victims.

“I saw a lot of young people get exploited,” he says. “I saw young people get stabbed and shot. I lost a lot of friends. It’s only now getting attention in the media, but this is something that has been going on for years.”

An estimated 100,000 people in the UK will be trapped in modern slavery this Christmas, according to the charity Causeway. It has supported thousands of modern slavery and exploitation survivors to make progress and thrive for nearly two decades.

Modern slavery is when a person is controlled and exploited by threats, violence, coercion, deception or abuse of power. It often involves people being forced to work for free or on extremely low wages.

Helen Ball, the chief executive of Causeway, says: “Christmas can be a particularly scary and isolating time for survivors – not only for those who are currently experiencing modern slavery, but also those rescued who are struggling to readjust into society and deal with the trauma of what they’ve been through.”

For Henkoma, who is now 25 and a dad of two young girls, Christmas is still challenging. “Christmas has never been a family thing,” he says. “People say they’re going to their mum’s house or their dad’s house or doing it with their sister in law. I’ve never had that. It always reminds me of the things I’ve lost.

“Even in my recovery, it’s not something I hold right now. This time of the year effects me deeply. I want to be a great dad for my kids, but my own personal traumas and issues effect me now. I never had a secure family.”

Henkoma was born in Nigeria but brought to the UK as a young child. Violence at home meant he was placed in foster care on a London housing estate from the age of nine, and soon after he was groomed by older boys from local gangs.

“At that time, I needed safety and I needed someone to protect me,” he explains. “When I went to social services, they didn’t believe what I was experiencing. But when I went to these lot, it was like they would forever protect me. They became more of my main carers than social services.”

Henkoma wants to speak out to help other people through raising awareness. Image: Causeway

He travelled around the UK selling drugs, desperate to please older gang members, but he was often abandoned in unfamiliar cities and forced to make his own way home. It was during one of these deals that, at 11 years old, he was threatened with a gun by a rival gang who took the drugs and money.

“Some moments play back in my head and I think: how could you do that to someone?” he says. “But also, the people I was involved with did a lot of reassurance. You do something mad for someone and they would sit down with you on the way back and say: ‘You’re our family. You’re our little bro. We would never do that to you.'”

Henkoma was 12 when he was given his own gun. He was 14 when he was imprisoned for the first time.

“I felt like I couldn’t be open with social services,” he says. “Even if they were asking me about what happened if someone was shot, I was very shut down to them. I didn’t think they would believe me. I never opened up as much. And then they would say I wasn’t engaging with them, but they weren’t trying hard enough.”

He went back to prison between the ages of 19 to 22, but he knew that he needed to turn his life around. He was a young dad by then – his daughters are now five and seven.

“When I went to prison, I could already see that this was not something for me,” he says. “I could see that these people had used me a lot. But I didn’t know how to walk away from something I had known for so long. But having the support around me and people being there helped me realise that I have people that I want to make proud.”

Henkoma has been supported by the charity Causeway, which provides safe houses, one-to-one specialist support, holistic crisis support interventions and community connection groups. They also signpost survivors to other services and opportunities to help change their lives.

The charity is also committed to raising awareness of modern slavery, human trafficking and criminal exploitation across the UK. It is urgently calling for action. 

Amy Bond, Causeway’s chief operating officer, says: “To seriously reduce risk, we need everyone to be aware of the signs and indicators. We also need to reduce potential vulnerability amongst our young people that could expect them from being targeted.

“This could mean support for the most hard-hit families, improved access to mental health services and far earlier intervention when we know a child or young person is struggling.”

Some of the most common forms of modern slavery include human trafficking, forced labour, criminal and sexual exploitation, forced marriage and organ harvesting – and it costs the UK £33 billion each year because of the services which have to step in to support victims and tackle crime.

Government data shows that at least 27,000 children in England are at risk of being exploited by organised crime gangs each year, and more than 16,000 children face sexual exploitation every year.

Henkoma is sharing his story as part of Causeway’s fundraising campaign Rewriting Christmas – the charity needs donations to continue its work supporting survivors over the festive season and beyond.

“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Henkoma says. “I want them to understand that this is happening to a lot of young people right now. At the end of the day, if there is any way people can help them, that’s what this is all about. That’s why I’m telling my story. I’m speaking because I want to start a revolution.”

Henkoma now works with organisations such as the police and social services to give them an insight into the struggles faced by young people vulnerable to grooming and exploitation. He is also studying for a criminology degree and mentoring young people facing similar circumstances. He is also an ambassador for Causeway.

“A lot of young people want to see a lot of change, but no one’s actually taught them how to make that stand,” Henkoma says. “And for me, I want to represent and stand for them so they’re able to make a stand for themselves. And it’s not just young people, but it’s also for the professionals.

“At the end of the day, the professionals are able to empower these young people so they stand for themselves and be able to grow mentally and become something great in this world. I believe every single young person that is involved in county lines are all businessmen but it they just don’t know yet. They don’t have the right person to teach them.

“They only have people whispering in their ears saying: ‘Make sure you bring me a grand back for this pack.’ And then they’ve got the criminal justice system telling them they’re wrong for doing it but not actually helping them fix it. I want to represent that change. I can’t do it myself, so I encourage other young people to join in this journey and for professionals to empower these young people to make this journey, because that’s how we’re going to get change.”

Find out more and donate to Causeway’s Christmas campaign to support more survivors of modern slavery here.

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