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Modern slavery survivor Ilja was sex trafficked for years. Now she's speaking out to help others

Ilja Abbattista was tricked into a brutal sex trafficking ring. Thirty years later, she's speaking out

Ilja Abbattista was tricked into modern slavery. This is her story. Credit: Causeway

Ilja Abbattista is a successful businesswoman, mother of two and soon-to-be grandmother. She’s also a survivor.

For two and a half years, the Northamptonshire local was the victim of a brutal sex trafficking scheme, forced to work 20-hour days in ‘gentleman’s clubs’ and red light districts around Europe. She was beaten, assaulted and robbed of her flat, her earnings and her identity.

But three decades after her escape, Abbattista counts herself “one of the lucky ones”.

“It’s in my past. But it’s happening to girls right now,” she warns. “That’s why I want to share my story, why I have to say something.”

The 50 year-old is speaking out as part of a new campaign – spearheaded by anti-modern slavery charity Causeway – in an effort to help raise public awareness of exploitation rackets. 

Ilja Abbattista was tricked into modern slavery

Some 50 million people around the world are currently trapped in modern slavery, with 136,000 of these in the UK. Such exploitation can take many forms, from human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage to child exploitation, sexual exploitation and forced marriage.

“I like the term ‘modern slavery‘, it’s quite broad,’” Abbattista says. “Because I still feel sick if I have to talk about some of the specific things that happened.”

Born to an English father and a Dutch mother, Abbattista grew up between the UK and the Netherlands, and spent her teenage years in the Dutch care system.

At 17, she moved into a social housing flat. Lacking a support network and staring down mounting debt, she agreed to marry a man so he could obtain a Dutch visa.

“I knew it wasn’t a great thing to do, but it seemed like this could be a solution,” she recalls. “It wouldn’t be a proper marriage, everything would just be on paper, and they would pay me.”

The marriage didn’t happen, but the group wouldn’t give Abbattista’s passport back. When she expressed concerns to a friend, the men found out – and claimed Abbattista owed them a “debt”.

“To repay this debt, they told me I could either: have them cut off one of my fingers, have them kill one of my family members, or I could ‘work’ for them for a week,” she explains. “I chose the finger. They collected a knife, a bottle of alcohol, and a cloth. I put my hand on the ironing board. But I felt sick.”

Terrified and desperate, Abbattista ultimately agreed to a week’s ‘work’. It turned into a harrowing 2 and a half year ordeal.

“I had no idea what I was supposed to do,” she says. “But I found out pretty quickly.”

The teenager was sent to different venues, forced to have sexual encounters with men and perform in male nightclubs and red light districts in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. Meanwhile, the traffickers seized Abbattista’s rented flat. 

“I could be made to work for up to 23 hours a day, you would never know who would come through the door,” Abbattista says. “I would just disassociate. But my insides were exploding. You feel such humiliation and shame. As a working girl – you are nothing, you are nobody. You’re on your own.”

There was no question of escape, she says. The women were constantly watched and monitored. Those who tried to flee would face “horrific consequences”, Abbattista explains. But one day, a friend offered to help her escape.

“I pretended I had a medical emergency so the traffickers would take me to the doctors,” she recalls. “Once inside the surgery, I made my way to the back and went straight out of the back door. Out the back there was building work happening. I hid in silence under the scaffolding for hours, until the friend who was helping me escape arrived.”

Shaking and terrified, Abbattista got into the car. After a few weeks hiding out, she was taken to the ferry port and boarded a ship to the UK. 

How did Ilja Abbattista rebuild her life?

Ilja Abbattista’s story is harrowing. But with millions of people trapped in modern slavery worldwide, it’s all too common.

Causeway’s new campaign is called Survivors: Life Beyond Exploitation. It aims to educate the public about modern slavery, and empower survivors. The charity also provides safe houses, one-to-one specialist support, holistic crisis support interventions and community connection groups.

With the proper support, trauma does not have to define survivors, Abbattista urges.

“Yes, the pain, the anguish, they live with you,” she says. “And in my darkest days, I couldn’t see very far in my future. But I always knew I had one.”

Ilja Abbattista is now a successful businesswoman.

After arriving back in the UK, Abbattista started to rebuild her life. She became a childminder, before setting up a crafting business, and launching a beauty salon. Over the following years she founded a number of successful businesses – including restaurants, cookery schools, and interior design companies. Such initiatives have won or been nominated for over 15 prestigious awards.

If sharing her story helps just one survivor, it will be worth it, Abbattista says.

“Imagine there’s this massive cloud across the earth of people who have gone through these awful experiences,” she declares.

“If you help one person, it would be like that massive cloud breaking with one, tiny bit of access to the sun. Some of that pain lifting. How wonderful would that be?”

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