Police in Britain have rescued 24 men they say have been enslaved for forced labour in an operation that led to the arrest of five people.
Some of the men lived in the raided caravan site for 15 years and worked in a “state of virtual slavery,” said Sean O’Neil, from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit.
“The men we found at the site were in a poor state of physical health and the conditions they were living in were shockingly filthy and cramped,” he added. Other men have been in the Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, only about 60 kilometres northwest of London, for a few weeks.
This is one of the “worst cases” of slavery, according to Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery, a human rights organisation that works towards the elimination of all forms of slavery.
“It’s shocking, but I’m not surprised that it is happening in the modern world,” Mr. McQuade told euronews about the Sunday uncovering of the slave site. Slavery has “never gone away,” he said.
The organisation estimates that 5,000 people are in the UK as a result of trafficking at any one time. Whilst some are forced into prostitution, increasing numbers are forced to work in construction, domestic work, cleaning, the restaurant trade, care, on farms and in factories. Many, including children, are forced to beg, commit street crime or cultivate cannabis.
Of the 24 vulnerable people who were rescued from the site, nine have left the medical reception centre and have chosen not to support the investigation, the police said. They were British and Romanian. The youngest of them was a 17-year-old British man who has joined his family.
The 15 victims that remain and are assisting the investigation include eight British men, three Polish men, a Latvian man and a Lithuanian man and two others whose nationalities are unconfirmed at this time. The oldest man is 57 and the youngest is 30; both are British.
Police suspect they were recruited at welfare offices and soup kitchens with promises of good salaries and accommodation. Some were kept in horse boxes, dog kennels and old caravans. They were threatened with violence if they tried to leave.
Four men and one woman were arrested on suspicion of committing slavery offences, which is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The woman arrested is pregnant and has been released on police bail until the imminent birth of her child, after which she will be questioned further. Enquiries to locate two further suspects are taking place.
The UK passed a law in 2010 following pressure from rights campaigners after several high profile incidents of slavery and trafficking in recent years.
“The new legislation has allowed the investigation more scope and takes into account emotional rather than physical harm. I am confident that while the investigation is in its early stages this is a family run ‘business’ and is an organised crime group that has been broken up by the Netwing operation,” said O’Neil.
If convicted, the gang leader faces seven years in jail, according to Anti-Slavery.
“If you take murder as one of the worst crimes, slavery must come quite close to it,” said McQuade. “It certainly is a crime that needs serious punishment. Seven years in prison is a serious punishment. Some would argue that a higher sentence should be given, but very few people would argue that it should be shorter.”
The raid, in which 200 police officers took part, took place on September 11 at 5:30 in the morning. The arrests came as a result of a long-running investigation
Operation Netwing is being led by Bedfordshire Police, supported by the local and health authorities and other agencies as well as the Human Trafficking Centre at Serious Organised crime Agency, SOCA.
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