Slavery happens in Australia. This is unacceptable. But how do we help the vulnerable people who have experienced this crime in our country? Why is working with survivors of Modern Slavery different from working with other trauma clients? How do we help them with their mental health? Why don’t we just send them to TAFE or help them get a job? Surely if they really tried they could get over it and get on with life?
These are some of the questions we at The Freedom Hub get asked regularly. So, in this article we will help you understand life from the perspective of a slavery survivor in Australia. We will also explain why and how the work we do is tailored to help recovery and success.
What is the Problem?
“Survivors have many practical problems that need to be addressed, as well as psychological and physical injuries. You cannot begin to treat a person appropriately if they are desperately concerned about their future, about the past, and about the present.” HELEN BAMBER OBE
When a survivor of slavery (in Australia) escapes their situation they usually only have the clothes they are wearing. They have no belongings, no identity, no family and no friends. Often their English is limited, or they cannot speak it at all. Many don’t know where they are, who they can trust or how they can be helped. Due to their captivity they usually have medical issues from physical abuse or being overworked, and are malnourished, hungry, tired and scared.
People living in slavery have been totally dehumanised.
They have been treated as objects of another person’s will. Most find it hard to trust people and to form relationships. Even with organisations like ours trying to help them. They usually have been living in total isolation. Also, remaining unseen and unheard was the safest way to survive. As a result, upon rescue, most survivors lack the self-confidence to take action. Even when it is in their own interests. And they live with the shame and stigma of their ‘status’ as slavery survivors.
In addition to all this, the majority suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD)* due to the trauma of living in abuse for a long time. With all the violence and exploitation that go with it, the trauma impact is now recognised as being more complicated than PTSD.
*see appendix for an explanation on the difference between PTSD & C-PTSD.
Fear has ruled their life for a very long time. And fear shuts down logical thought processes and pushes a person into a constant state of anxiety.
Now, let’s look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and how these needs are essential to recovery:
1. Physiological Needs
When a survivor comes to us, looking after their physiological needs is the obvious first step. However, this stage is not an overnight or one week stint full of food and rest. In our experience, this first step can take many months before they begin to feel safe and secure. Yet, it is in this first week – or even in the first hours after “rescue” – that victims are usually expected to share their experience with police and other strangers. On top of that, they are expected to make important decisions regarding their immediate future. As if they can think logically in these circumstances!
“Modern slavery, in all its forms, has a profound and devastating impact on human lives. If we are truly to understand the effects of slavery, and help survivors rebuild their lives, we must consider the mental health impact of slavery. It leads to significant and disabling mental health problems, as well as generational cycles of crisis, hardship and loss.” Anti-Slavery International
Mental health considerations require time, resources and expertise. The Freedom Hub Survivor School works hard to ensure our teachers, volunteers and social workers are well-trained and up-to-speed in working with the mental health issues unique to slavery. We take into account the mental health needs of every one of our slavery survivors. We understand that their experience can affect their cognitive functioning, such as memory recall. As a result, they may not be able to give consistent accounts of what has happened to them. So, we don’t delve. In fact, we train our teachers not to ask about a survivor’s past, and how to respond if it comes up. We are about helping them into their future freedom and not their past captivity.
Our trauma-informed approach means we understand that a survivor may need time to learn to trust people. They may also need time to build up their skills. Pushing them off to TAFE to learn English because the government has provided free classes is not what they need. We believe they need time to build social connections and confidence, so that they can overcome their other challenges first. Then they will succeed at studies or work.
2. Safety and Security Needs
The next level of need is to find safety and security. To achieve this, each survivor has to find somewhere to live and find people around them that they can trust.
In Australia, there is only one safe house specifically set up to help survivors of slavery. This safe house is run by the Salvation Army and has ‘trauma-informed’ caseworkers who understand the unique needs of modern slavery survivors. However, it only has 10 beds! Most survivors are placed in other refuges, like women’s or youth refuges. Here they are thrust amongst strangers; going from living in isolation to living with many – not knowing how to fit in or who to trust. So, their anxiety and fear continues. If they aren’t placed in a refuge, they have to find their own accomodation. This enhances feelings of insecurity and isolation. It is easy to see how returning to what they know – slavery – is often the easiest thing to do.
Despite being ‘rescued’, mental health is still a dominant issue.
So the ‘rescue’ is only physical, they are still trapped. We think this is a key area that needs to be considered in Australia’s response to slavery. Slavery survivors have unique needs with regard to feeling safe again. Actually, we have what we believe could be a great solution, but it needs funding. So, we continue to apply for grants in the hope that we can help in this gap of recovery.
The Freedom Hub was established to meet the needs in the final three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy. We recognised that no other organisation was specifically addressing these needs for victims of slavery. Yet these three stages are vital to long-term recovery.
3. Belonging and Love Needs
Survivors of slavery have many challenges to overcome to fit in socially. Here is a list of challenges that can prevent them from being included in society and prevent them feeling like they belong.
isolation / exclusion / dependency / shame / immobility / little or no schooling / difficulties with decisions and planning ahead / anonymity / absence of rights / misconceptions on codes of living in society / few resources / no accomodation / no job / vulnerability / poor self-worth / reduced confidence / trouble with trust or too much trust / no friends / no family / language issues.
The average Australian may have experienced a few of these hardships over a lifetime, but rarely, most of these at once, or for a long period of time.
As you can imagine, when someone has lived like this for a long time, they will have difficulties with relationships and a sense of belonging. Many of our survivors feel lonely. Being treated as an object, not a person, has forced feelings of worthlessness and avoidance of others into their psyche. So, they live with a sense of not belonging and no one understanding them. Exclusion is their normal.
Adding to this, many experience guilt about not being able to have friends, not being liked, and shame about having been in slavery. As a result, we find ourselves working everyday with survivors who have a huge lack of self-esteem, poor mental health, depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
“How do you find your place in a group from which you have been excluded, whose codes remain unknown, to which you did not have the right to belong and in which you feel you don’t have legitimacy ? The path to rebuilding lives is long when the roots go deep.” Anti-Slavery International
At the Freedom Hub Survivor School one of the first things we do is work to help our survivors with a sense of belonging and social interaction. We arrange fun and educational ‘outings’ that help build safe experiences and group memories with each other. Last month, for example, we took a small group to the Botanical Gardens for a picnic. You read more about that here.
During COVID, we have started weekly virtual coffee chats, online yoga classes and an online mother’s group to help our survivors feel that they are connected and belong to something. We always work with small groups of 3 to 6 so that they are not overwhelmed by a large group. When they are new, we assign a buddy to encourage them to take steps in building friendships. Our small classes are also trauma-informed and survivors can work at their own pace. Creating self-worth, self-confidence, coping strategies and understanding society’s unwritten ‘codes’ are a priority, before we ask them to try and achieve academic or work-related skills.
While we agree with the many that think getting a job or learning English will help, we also know that for long-term recovery to happen, worth, value, and belonging are critical first steps.
4. Esteem Needs
For a survivor of slavery, freedom and choice have been taken from the decision-making part of the brain. Many have limited education, or none at all. Economic deprivation and political exclusion are a source of additional stress and anxiety; negatively affecting a survivor’s mental health. So, the practical elements of working and studying should not be neglected.
Being included in the social fabric contributes significantly to the wellbeing of the person.
This is where the Freedom Hub is providing a niche for slavery survivors. We run evidence-based, trauma-informed courses that teach skills to help a survivor succeed at either study or work.
Moving into study or paid work is a major step when you have unstable mental health issues of complex trauma.
It is a very rare survivor that can do this alone and unassisted, successfully. We have seen so many try. But unaddressed coping strategies for triggers, anxiety, insecurity and loneliness can easily cause a survivor to fall behind peers. This can result in more depression and anxiety and giving up on their studies or losing their job.
“Victims of slavery have been deprived of their liberty, voice and agency. Even when they survive physically, the psychological effects endure long after they leave slavery. Each survivor, in their uniqueness and depending on their experience, will have developed survival strategies and defence mechanisms against violence. Following the violence and shocking situations which created the trauma, the person’s internal reality changed. Each traumatic experience is embedded. The difficulty with the most emotionally charged memories is that they are sometimes part of a traumatic memory, and other memories can’t be retrieved because of the shock endured.” Anti Slavery International
All our Survivor School courses have a ‘certificate of achievement’ at the end, enhancing worth, value and accomplishment. The exciting news is during COVID we have moved most of our courses online. This means we can now offer courses to survivors all over Australia, and to English speakers globally. This is an exciting vision for expansion in 2021.
5. Self-Actualisation Needs
Since we established the Freedom Hub in 2014, we have seen 94% of our survivors study, find work, and live life successfully. We love seeing them thrive, and the friendships they have built within our classes and outings continue. Many past survivors continue to come on outings. As a result, they create an amazing ‘peer support’ network for newer survivors. This year, we have seen evidence of the best kind of success! Five ‘alumni’ survivors have found love, and the happy couples have welcomed babies into their lives. In addition to that, a couple of our ‘alumni’ are even doing a little advocacy in their own way.
So, that’s the goal: independent, successful living, with confidence and self-worth. That is freedom. That is what everything we do at the Freedom Hub aims to achieve.
“Getting out of slavery is not about physically moving somewhere, and going from one world to another. It is a major, radical change which may prove to be destabilising if it is not done with assistance.The slave is not a subject but an object, whose first duty is to satisfy the desire of someone else: the master. Humans construct their identity through otherness. Negation of the other as an equal being is serious and destructive. Leaving slavery proves to be a long and mentally costly process insofar as significant changes to identity are required.” Anti-Slavery International
The Freedom Hub Survivor School is the only LONG-TERM, wrap-around care and support for survivors of modern slavery in Australia. We currently support around 70 survivors but would like to be able to support the thousands of survivors in Australia that need us.
Without our community of businesses and donors, we could not do this, and we want to keep growing so we can help many, many more.
Thank you for your part in this.
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The difference between PTSD & C-PTSD:
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event. eg a car accident, war, cancer etc
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder describes the long-term effects of severe, prolonged trauma usually involving fear of life eg child abuse, slavery, years domestic violence. This has a wide range of effects on personality, identity, memory, mood change and emotional regulation. Additional to PTSD symptoms are:
- difficulty controlling your emotions
- feeling very hostile or distrustful towards the world
- constant feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
- feeling as if you are permanently damaged or worthless
- believing you are completely different to other people
- feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you
- avoiding friendships and relationships, or finding them very difficult
- often experiencing dissociative symptoms such as depersonalisation or derealisation
- regular suicidal feelings.
Complex PTSD is a relatively recent concept. Because of its variable nature, healthcare professionals may instead diagnose another condition. They may be especially likely to diagnose borderline personality disorder (BPD)