A young mum-of-two who set up a local group to tackle human trafficking has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Mel Wiggins (32), from Portadown, project co-ordinator of Freedom Acts, said it was a “real shock” and “a bit surreal” to receive the honour.
But she said the award will help to highlight the issue, pointing out that many people still believe that trafficking only happens in foreign countries but not here.
This is despite two high-profile cases in recent years, including one in 2014 when 12 Romanians were rescued from a house in Portadown, where according to court reports at the time, they had been kept “hungry and exhausted”.
Mel, who lived in Canada for a large part of her life, initially set up Stop the Traffick Craigavon with friend Laura Wylie after returning to Portadown from London in 2011.
It was while working in London with international charity Oasis that she had become aware of the issue of trafficking. She said, “I was listening to stories in the office and I was really intrigued.
“I was also working in a hostel looking after homeless women and a couple of them had been trafficked. When I moved back home, I realised it was a problem here too.”
Stop the Traffick Craigavon was replaced by Freedom Acts in 2012 and, with the help of Stephen Smith of Portadown-based Community Intercultural Programme (CIP), successfully applied for a three-year grant from Comic Relief.
Just last August, the charity renewed the funding for another three years.
Freedom Acts is based at CIP’s office in Foundry Street and, along with Mel, has two other part-time staff.
A lot of the group’s work centres on educating young people and raising awareness. They also train professionals such as healthcare workers to identify people who may have been trafficked, and work closely with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the recruitment agency regulator as well as the Department of Justice.
She said, “I never imagined I would be doing what I am doing. This job make me feel alive because I know it’s worthwhile. I am a small cog in a big wheel.
“When you get an award like this, you want to use it to further the cause you are being honoured for working in.
“There is a big agriculture and food production sector here and lots of opportunities for people to be taken advantage of.
“People don’t have to be chained up. They can be exploited in subtle ways - they are financially controlled and kept quite isolated - and somebody else is profiting from that.”