modern slavery

Ilja's story

Ilja Photo 2


Ilja is a successful, award-winning business woman, happily married, with two grown-up children and her first grandchild on the way.

However, Ilja is also a survivor.  Between the ages of 18 to 20, she was trafficked across Europe and forced into modern slavery and sexual exploitation.  It is only now, 30 years on from her escape, that she is speaking out and telling her story for the first time.

“My father was English and mother Dutch, so I spent my childhood living between the UK and the Netherlands,” said Ilja. “However, following a series of traumatic childhood experiences, at 14-years-old I went into care in the Netherlands.”

When Ilja reached 17, she was provided with a local authority flat, but with no further support offered, she struggled for money and her debts began to build.

“One of my friends introduced me to a group of men who offered to pay off my debts in exchange for marrying one of their associates for a visa,” she said. “They took my passport and documentation in order to arrange the marriage.”

The marriage didn’t happen, but the group of men refused to give Ilja her passport or documents back, and she spoke to someone to try to find out more.

“When the men discovered I had spoken out about them, they claimed I owed them a ‘debt,’” she said.

“In order to repay this debt, I could either have one of my fingers cut off; have them kill one of my family members, or I could ‘work’ for them for a week.”

Terrified and desperate, Ilja said she would ‘work’ for them. However, this work did not last for one week, it lasted two and a half years. She was forced into sex work, made to dance in nightclubs, and was displayed in the windows of Amsterdam’s notorious red-light district.

In this time the traffickers also seized Ilja’s flat and made her live in squalid accommodation with other women they were exploiting.  Any money Ilja earned from her sexual exploitation, the traffickers immediately took.

“I could be made to work for up to 23 hours a day,” Ilja said. “I was so exhausted that I would sometimes fall asleep on the job, have my money stolen from me, and then would be beaten by the traffickers as a consequence.”

The traffickers had networks stretching throughout Europe, and Ilja was moved across the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.  Throughout this period, Ilja was terrorised by her traffickers, who often raped and seriously attacked her and the other women she was with, especially if they tried to escape. This left her petrified at the thought of running away.

However, one day somebody offered Ilja hope. “They said they could help me escape,” she said.

“I knew escaping was not going to be easy as the traffickers constantly watched and monitored me. However, I knew a local doctor’s walk-in centre had a back door.  I pretended I had a medical emergency, and once inside the surgery, I made my way straight out of the back door. 

“There was building work happening so I hid in silence under the scaffolding for hours until the friend who was helping me arrived. I got straight into their car and they let me stay at their house for a few weeks.  I was then taken to the ferry port, where I made my way to the UK.”

When Ilja arrived in the UK, she began to rebuild her life.

“Initially I became a self-employed childminder, then I set up a crafting business, and then I launched a beauty salon.”

Ilja’s entrepreneurial successes grew and grew, and over the following years she founded a number of successful businesses – including restaurants, cookery schools, diet plans, packaging firms, and interior design companies.  Ilja’s business achievements led to her becoming a prominent figurehead for women in business, and she soon began receiving nominations for prestigious awards.  These included Women in Business, Good Food, Café of the Year, Feed with Confidence, and UK Food awards.

By now, Ilja was also married with two children, and living in a close-knit community in England.  Apart from her immediate family, she kept the trauma she had experienced to herself.

“I didn’t want it to define me,” she said. “And I was concerned people would judge me and wouldn’t relate.” 

In early 2023, just before Ilja’s 50th birthday, she went on a public speaking course for businesswomen.  It was at this point that something changed inside her.  She realised she now had a voice and influence, and there was something much bigger than business she needed to speak about. 

She was now ready to share her story of what happened to her.

Ilja is now on a mission to raise awareness of modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation.  She has become an empowerment coach, and is focused on working with survivors, and educating and advising the wider public. 

“This is something that happened to me 30 years ago, but I don’t believe anything has really changed, and more must be done to protect others from modern slavery and trafficking,” she said.

“This isn’t about me. I’m speaking out for all of those people who don’t have a voice.  This includes the women I worked with back then, who didn’t get out, and aren’t here today.

“If by me speaking out I can stop this happening to just one other person, that’s all it would need to be.”