It was in Bangkok, Thailand, in an old run down hotel primarily used as a brothel, that I first met “Ella.”* From a country on the other side of the world to Thailand, Ella had been exploited through prostitution for a number of years. Ella is an intelligent young woman and with the right opportunities, could do anything she put her mind to. Instead, there she was selling her body to men who passed through the city. This was the only life she had known since her teenage years.
Around Christmas 2012, I was surprised to hear from Ella that she was in London. She contacted me and asked if I could take her to hospital as she said she wasn’t well. That evening, a friend and I met Ella at a tube station. We learned that Ella had been living and working in a brothel close by. To this day the details of how she got there remain hazy as she said she didn’t want to get anyone in trouble by saying anything. We discovered though, that she had no intention of returning to the brothel, nor was she mentally or physically in any fit state to do so.
Our first approach was to get Ella into a shelter for women who had been trafficked. She was initially accepted into a safe house outside of London. However, within just a few days they released her because she refused to speak. Without evidence of her being exploited or trafficked, the safe house was unable to complete the necessary paperwork and consequently would not receive funding for her to stay.
Several tense days passed and we still had not found a suitable place for Ella to stay, so I took her to an A&E at a local hospital. After a 10-hour wait, Ella was hospitalised for further observation. Yet, just 3 days later, a social worker from the hospital telephoned to say they were going to discharge her that day. I expressed my concern for Ella’s health and highlighted that she had been in a vulnerable and horrible situation here in London. I also explained there appeared to be no organisation able to offer her shelter. The hospital staff’s response was abrupt; if there was nowhere else, could she go back to the brothel? As an afterthought she added, “If it isn’t an abusive situation.”
In the days and weeks that followed efforts to keep Ella in safe and appropriate places continued, but there was nowhere long-term and nowhere that would address her complex needs. It was a stressful time during which her health was in rapid decline. How could it be so difficult to find help for the most vulnerable here in London?
Eventually, after many more hurdles it was recognised that Ella needed urgent medical attention and she was hospitalised. This time a different hospital took her in and took great care of her.
The change in Ella after a short time in the hospital was profound and her health vastly improved. As Ella’s stay at that hospital drew to a close the staff there assured me they didn’t want to put her out on the street but they simply didn’t know of any alternatives.
Thankfully, Ella got in touch with a family member whom she hadn’t seen in several years. She decided to go and meet them in the country where they live. It seemed like a good plan and we made the arrangements for her to go there. I hoped that Ella would find a safe place to live, with people around her who would treat her with kindness.
After a few weeks with these family members, I received word from Ella that she had returned to Thailand. It both grieved and frustrated me that more couldn’t be done for her. If there had been some way and somewhere Ella could have received sustained rehabilitative care she may have found her way out of years of exploitation rather than be lured back to a brothel in Bangkok.
After everything Ella experienced in London, it’s clear that there is a need for a home where those who escape from a life of exploitation will be welcome. Ella and I remain in regular contact. I’ve told her about the new women’s safe house, which we’ve affectionately named Ella’s and that she was the inspiration.
* Ella is the nickname that was given to this young woman during her difficult time in London to protect her identity then and now. This account of Ella’s experience in London has been written by Emily, co-founder of Ella’s.