Meet the nun who helps police raid brothels run by human traffickers

Sister Ancy Mathew provides care for women freed from clutches of criminals in London
Sister Ancy Mathew with members of her order, the Congregation of Adoratrices.
Sister Ancy Mathew with members of her order, the Congregation of Adoratrices. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
It’s Saturday afternoon and in an unmarked police car in central London a burly policeman is accompanied by a tiny, bird-like nun. A raid is about to take place on a brothel whose inhabitants, the police believe, include women who have been trafficked into Britain from eastern Europe. The nun is an integral part of the police operation.
It could be a storyline from a film, but there isn’t a camera in sight. This is real life, part of the UK’s imaginative and innovative approach that has made it a frontrunner in the battle against human trafficking; and the scene explains why London will this week host the second meeting of the Santa Marta international consortium to stop the trade.
Home secretary Theresa May, Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Cardinal Vincent Nichols will join police chiefs, victims’ organisations, ambassadors and church leaders from 27 countries for the conference, taking place at Lancaster House on Friday and Saturday.
It is likely to be followed by announcements next weekend of projects aimed both at more effective policing and education campaigns to raise public awareness of trafficking. On Saturday the Home Office said there could be as many as 13,000 slavery victims in the UK.
“It’s a terrible crime that wrecks people’s lives, and it goes on in the midst of ordinary life – on ordinary streets in cities and towns across Britain – yet many people know nothing about it,” said Kevin Hyland, newly appointed as the country’s anti-slavery commissioner, who will play a leading role at the conference. “We need to tell people what they need to look out for, the signs that someone might be being coerced into living a life they don’t want to lead, so that they can help in the fight against trafficking.”
Hyland was behind the setting up of the Santa Marta group, which held its inaugural meeting at the Vatican in April. A Roman Catholic, in his previous job as head of the Metropolitan police’s human trafficking unit, he became aware of the urgent need to work internationally and the importance of providing trafficking victims with proper support and care. In too many cases, he said, the victims of trafficking have been assumed to be criminals and treated accordingly.
“The experiences victims suffer mean they are often psychologically damaged and are sometimes forced to commit criminal acts or to become sex workers. They need very sensitive handling.”
Which brings us back to the nun in the police car. Sister Ancy Mathew is a member of the Congregation of Adoratrices, an order of nuns founded in Spain in 1856 by St Maria Micaela to minister among women working in prostitution.
Mathew, who is in her early 50s, was born in Kerala in India and worked for some years in Kolkata with street children born to sex workers. In 2000, she was transferred to London, where she became aware of the growing problem of trafficked women and decided to dedicate her life to helping them. She founded a charity called Rahab, named after a biblical prostitute, and accompanied officers from the human trafficking unit raiding flats where trafficked women might be held.
What Mathew, her fellow sisters and lay volunteers were able to do, said Hyland, was put the “heart” into often extraordinarily difficult situations.
Women who have been trafficked into Britain to become sex workers have invariably been lied to, and have often been encouraged by the criminals who control them to fear police. As a result, few trust the police enough to be able to open up to them about what they know after they have been freed – and yet, he said, it is vital that they do in the “golden hour” after a raid, when the police have an opportunity, if they move fast, to shut down other trafficking operations and to catch the criminals behind them.
On the raid I accompanied, none of the sex workers had been trafficked – but when they are, Mathew and her team provide invaluable skills and support to complement the police operation.
Typically, she waits outside in a police car until the situation has been assessed by police officers, and then she goes into the house or flat to talk to the women found there; often they give her valuable information that she is able to pass on to the police. She also organises accommodation at a chain of safe houses for women who have been freed from the slave-like conditions in which they are held.
“These victims need a lot of tender, loving care – they have been treated appallingly badly, and they are in a state of shock,” said Hyland. “Freeing them means removing them from the place where they have been living, and although that’s welcome it’s also very frightening for them, because it takes them away from everything they’ve known. The police can’t provide round-the-clock care, but the Rahab team do manage to do that – and then the sisters are often able to use their church links to help resettle the women back in the countries they have been trafficked from, which is also fraught with difficulties and needs very careful handling.”
“The fact is that we’re all paid to do this – it’s our job,” said one of the police officers involved in the London raid. “But for trafficked women and other sex workers it’s their whole lives – and having someone like Sister Ancy, who is dedicating her whole life to it and isn’t doing it merely because it’s her job, means the world to the women they help.”

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