Initiative, inspired by friends’ trip to Thailand, helps chart course back to independence for victims once government support ends
A special Belfast-based initiative is helping to provide long-term support to survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery through building confidence and developing skills which in turn will help them to lead a safe, independent and resilient life after trauma.
The charity was set up in 2014 by friends Jill Robinson and Elizabeth McKee after a trip to Thailand highlighted the “stark realities” of human trafficking.
They witnessed the daily torment of both men and women who were victims of a range of exploitation, whether it be through labour, sexual or domestic servitude.
Jill (42) said that when they returned home, they realised the same issues were apparent here as well, and that something needed to be done to tackle the gap in long-term support.
“When we came home, we recognised that although Thailand is a very different country and culture, there was still a problem here in Northern Ireland, albeit more hidden,” she said.
“So, we set about asking questions and researching the issue.
“At that time there was not so much known about human trafficking and we began to raise awareness of the issue with community, faith-based groups and statutory and community bodies in our local area.
“Through this work we met a lawyer who was representing a victim of trafficking and it became apparent that there was a huge gap in long-term follow-on support for survivors of human trafficking.
“This led to the decision to form the charity, Flourish, to address the gap in support provision.”
Jill and Elizabeth (62) are both from Bangor but base their charity in premises on the Newtownards Road which supports survivors living all across Northern Ireland.
Elizabeth said that statutory support is in place for a limited time, but recovery is inevitably a long and complex process.
“Being rescued from human trafficking is only the beginning of a journey to recovery,” she explained.
“Government support is provided for a limited time which is often not long enough for a survivor to recover, so this is why Flourish exists — to provide that much-needed long-term support.”
“Flourish recognises that each person’s journey is different, and our tailored support reflects that,” she added.
“We believe in empowering survivors so that they can take back control of their own lives; every individual should have access to the support services they need during recovery to provide a pathway to living an independent, resilient life.”
One of the main ways volunteers and staff members at Flourish provide this vital support is through their one-to-one case-work and referrals processes, working alongside charity partners Migrant Help and Women’s Aid.
Their trained case-workers work with survivors to develop a long-term care plan which best meets the material, physical and psychological needs of the men, women and children who are seeking support.
“Without this type of tailored support, many clients face significant barriers in their healing and recovery,” Jill told Sunday Life.
“They can become socially isolated, develop mental health issues and substance misuse as well as even becoming homeless or even being re-exploited.
“Through the work we do, each individual is allocated a case-worker whose work focuses on all areas of someone’s life.
“We are very much led by the needs of the individual but will typically help them with a range of lifestyle needs such as housing, finance, education, employment, immigration, legal cases relating to the trafficking, mental health support, physical health, social support and integration into the community.”
As well as their one-to-one case-work they also provide group activities. Elizabeth said it is important for clients to integrate with others in the same position as a way to “build confidence and become less isolated.”
Some ways they facilitate this is through craft activities, floral workshops, art therapy sessions and upskilling programmes, including one special sewing class which is helping to fund the charity’s vital work as well as providing some useful skills for clients.
These ‘sew and skill’ programmes are not only used as a creative outlet for the clients offering a range of employability skills, but it has recently been developed into a not-for-profit business called Sewn.
Upon completion of the sew and skill programme, participants are then invited to join the production team where 100 per cent of the profits from products sold go directly back into Flourish’s coffers to support the ongoing journey of recovery, independence and freedom for survivors of human trafficking.
Sewn’s products are made using 100 per cent Irish linen which is sourced in Northern Ireland.
With an added focus on sustainability, those involved adopt an entirely plastic-free approach with no plastic included in their packaging.
Some of the participants of Sewn have said that the sewing class helps them to “relax” and has improved their confidence while benefitting from the charity has allowed them to look forward to the future.
One person said: “Since I have been rescued, I have needed someone to act as my eyes and ears… Flourish NI has done that for me.”
Another said: “I feel like for the first time I have full permission to be myself and know that people will be ok with that.”
With every purchase of a Sewn piece you are supporting the ongoing journey of recovery, independence and freedom for survivors of human trafficking with 100 per cent of profits going back into the work that Flourish NI carries out.
Flourish NI is based in City East Business Centre, 68-72 Newtownards Road, Belfast. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram by searching for the @flourishni1 handle.