Our partner in the Modern Slavery Transitional Housing Program, The Salvation Army, operates the country’s only Safe House for women who have experienced modern slavery and human trafficking in Australia. We spoke to Claudia Cummins, Program Manager at the Trafficking and Slavery Safe House, to better understand what immediate challenges survivors face after their escape.

The below interview is part 2 of a 3-part series. In part 1, Claudia discusses different forms of modern slavery in Australia, the perpetrators, and how survivors escape their horrific situations. Part 3 is about long-term goals, such as learning English, making friends, finding a job and their own home.

What can a survivor expect when they first arrive at the Safe House?

First we need to establish their physical and mental safety. As you can imagine they have been in a really terrifying situation that might have lasted months, sometimes years. They need to feel safe.

We talk to them about the security of the location, what to do in an emergency, what to do if they feel like they’re being followed. We make a safety plan so they can feel prepared, and tell them how to contact police. For many it’s their first time properly experiencing Australia – realising that the police can be trusted, that we have systems to help them. That might be the opposite of what they’ve been told by the perpetrator or different to what they’ve experienced in their home country.

Immediate challenges for modern slavery survivors
Unsurprisingly, many survivors who have recently escaped are distrustful and afraid.

Sometimes it’s the little things: we make a sign with their name on it for their room door. It signifies the room is their space and the Safe House is their home.

We build rapport and trust with them, so they feel safe to open up about any mental health symptoms they’re experiencing. Then we can connect them with psychologists and counsellors.

We also ask, “When would be a good time for you to meet with me?” Survivors might reply, “No no, whenever is good for you”, but we help them understand they now control their time and decisions. We give them as many options as possible so they start to regain a sense of power over their choices again.

What are their immediate needs?

We make sure people have any health needs addressed; they might have problems that have been ignored for a long time. Recently we’ve seen people with significant dental problems that cause a lot of pain every day, and people with pre-existing injuries who have been forced to do lots of physical work. Things have gotten worse because they weren’t allowed care. We find them doctors and specialists as needed.

We also connect survivors with legal advice; this is very important for people with an uncertain visa status. Some want to leave Australia and go home to their family, and the main concern is whether that is safe. Others would love to return home but know they can’t; they would face repercussions so they must stay. Others do want to build a life in Australia and can see there are opportunities here: they could spend more time on their education, learn a new skill or become financially independent in a way they couldn’t back home.

Immediate challenges for modern slavery survivors
Although they may desperately want to return home to their family overseas, some survivors must remain in Australia for safety reasons.

Survivors also receive legal advice before reporting their experiences to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), this shows them they have rights and choices.

What are some of the issues around reporting crimes?

There are mandatory reporting requirements for crimes committed against those under 18 – but for the rest, reporting is up to the individual. That decision is hard to make for lots of reasons. For example, survivors may be concerned about threats to their family overseas. In this case, a survivor might be happy to discuss their experiences and concerns with the AFP, but not want to make a formal statement.

Before making the decision to speak with the AFP they need legal advice to understand the process, from their statement to police all the way up to potentially testifying in court. We tell them they’ll have our support the whole way.

We do see situations where we think a perpetrator may reoffend. That is really disturbing. But the majority of our clients do report to police in one form or another. Unfortunately very few cases go all the way to court, often due to lack of sufficient evidence.

Immediate challenges for modern slavery survivors
If a survivor does choose to report a crime, they are guaranteed support and advice throughout the duration of the process.

How long has the Safe House been in operation? How many clients can it house?

The Safe House has been in operation since 2008. It is a standalone refuge which provides accommodation and case management support for 10 women over the age of 18. The location is kept completely confidential – anyone who comes to live here must also respect that.

Space is limited; however, we also provide outreach case management support to men, women, families and young people who are living elsewhere. External clients might be living in a youth refuge, women’s refuge, share house or private rental.

We work with around 25 clients at a time – 10 in the Safe House and 15 in the community.

About the Sisters of Charity Foundation’s Modern Slavery Transitional Housing Program

When a survivor is ready to live independently, the Modern Slavery Transitional Housing Program can help them on their way. In this unique model:

  1. The Salvation Army works with clients to find suitable accommodation that is affordable and accessible for work and transport.
  2. The Sisters of Charity Foundation provides funding to cover a significant portion of each client’s rent for up to 12 months; a one-off set-up cost for furniture, whitegoods and other necessities; as well as casework services and program administration.
  3. The Salvation Army provides case management and support to ensure clients are managing their tenancy, eventually transitioning the lease to the client so they can live independently.

The model has the advantage of providing accommodation that is tailored to the individual’s needs and overcomes the barrier of entering the rental market experienced by people who have no previous rental or employment history. 

Claudia Cummins is Program Manager at the Salvos Trafficking and Slavery Safe House, where she has worked since 2016. After gaining experience in domestic violence services and refugee community support, Claudia came to work at the Safe House following a social work student placement with The Salvation Army, opening her eyes to the extent of modern slavery in Australia. Claudia holds a Master of Social Work and a Bachelor of International and Global Studies.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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