Call for help was first step to freedom for women enslaved in London
Women phoned charity after watching TV show in an unprecedented domestic slavery case for the UK
The Freedom Charity volunteer staffing the organisation’s 24-hour helpline one day in October would not have been expecting the startling phone call that would lead to the uncovering of what the London Metropolitan police would call the most extreme case of domestic slavery they have seen.
The tiny charity specialises in going into schools to deliver talks about how to recognise the signs of forced marriage. It encourages calls to its helpline from predominantly south Asian youngsters worried they are being pushed into marriage against their will, or fearful of becoming the victim of so-called “honour crimes”.
But the volunteer knew exactly how to respond. Although the story she heard – of three women held captive in a south London house for 30 years – seemed on a scale that was hard to believe, she recognised the telltale signs of fear and coercion.
The women had watched a TV documentary about forced marriage which featured the work of Freedom Charity. According to the charity’s chair, Lord Harris of Haringey, that gave the captives the confidence to make the initial contact. “One of the women saw the programme and clearly thought ‘they look like nice, safe people’ and made the call.”
More calls followed over the next few days as the helpline operators patiently built up a rapport with the nervous women. When the trio – a 69-year-old Malaysian woman, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old Briton – walked free from the house to the safety of waiting police officers in late October, at the conclusion of an operation planned with “utmost sensitivity and secrecy”, there were cheers at Freedom Charity.
Police arrested a man and a woman, both aged 67 and described as non-British nationals, at the house in south London on Thursday but the unnamed pair were later freed after questioning.
“Two people arrested on Thursday, 21 November, in connection with an investigation into slavery and domestic servitude have been bailed until a date in January pending further enquiries,” a police statement said.
Police had earlier described it as one of the worst cases of its kind they had seen.
“We have never seen anything of this magnitude before,” said Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, who leads Scotland Yard’s Human Trafficking Unit.
“These women are highly traumatised, having been held in servitude for at least 30 years with no real exposure to the outside world, and, trying to find out exactly what has happened over three decades will understandably take some time,” he said.
Detectives said they did not know where the youngest woman was born, adding that the relationship between the three women was “part of an ongoing investigation and we are not willing to speculate”.
“However, we believe that the 30-year-old woman had been in servitude all her life,” a Scotland Yard statement said.
The three women had “controlled freedom”, but Hyland said it was still not clear what that meant in practice.
“Their life was greatly controlled and for much of it they would have been kept in the premises.”
Aneeta Prem, the founder of the Freedom Charity, said the women’s treatment was “barbaric”, adding that she believed they suffered physical but not sexual abuse.
Extraordinary as this particular case was, enforced domestic slavery is not unique in the UK. Hyland’s specialist police unit receives reports of 200 slavery cases a year.
Katie Barker, UK community action co-ordinator at the charity Stop the Traffik, says that trafficking is one of world’s fastest growing crimes, and more common in the UK than people may think. “It’s always shocking. But,” she added “we were not necessarily surprised” as reports of the story of the three women emerged.
The Walk Free Foundation estimates there are between 4,300 and 4,600 slaves in the UK.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse