12 Sep 2011

Five held on slavery charges at travellers’ site

As police continue their inquiries into how 24 vulnerable people were held and apparently kept as slaves on a Bedfordshire traveller site. Channel 4 News reveals just how widespread the practice is.

Four men and a woman have been arrested for suspected slavery offences at Greenacre travellers’ site in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

Around 200 police officers raided the site at 5.30am on Sunday morning and found 24 men in “filthy and cramped” conditions.

The victims were taken to an undisclosed medical reception centre and provided with medical, health and social welfare care.

After receiving immediate help, nine men decided not to support the police in their investigations. Of the 15 men that remain, eight are British, three Polish, one Latvian, one Lithuanian and two men are of unconfirmed nationalities.

The five residents of the site were arrested under the new Slavery and Servitude Act 2010. They are being held at police stations across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

‘State of virtual slavery’

Detective Chief Inspector Sean O’Neil, from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit, said: “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.

“We believe that some of them had been living and working there in a state of virtual slavery, some for just a few weeks and other for up to 15 years.”

The conditions they were living in were shockingly filthy and cramped. Detective Chief Inspector Sean O’Neill

The offences being investigated are “extremely serious”, he said.

The long-running police investigation into the alleged slavery ring at Greenacre centred around information suggesting a number of people were being held against their will in poor conditions at the site.

A police spokesman told Channel 4 News: “Intelligence that we received earlier this year relating to the site, and our own intelligence gathering, has led us to believe that up to 28 people have passed through the site since 2008.”

Slavery and trafficking in the UK

The alleged slavery ring at Greenacres is not the first suspected instance of vulnerable men being held under forced labour. Channel 4 News has uncovered dozens of other unrelated cases in counties across the country, and heard first-hand accounts from some of the poor, dispossessed and usually homeless victims who have been preyed upon and abused.

Four people were arrested in March this year, charged with holding 22 alleged victims in slavery at travellers’ sites in Gloustershire and Leicestershire, and forcing them to carry out forced labour.

In a separate incident, three people were arrested in June under charges of alleged slavery at a travellers’ site at Hamble near Southampton.

In the video below, Graham Clark tells Channel 4 News he was kidnapped by travellers and forced to work as a slave in the Midlands for 10 months.

In the two years between April 2009 March 2011, there were 1481 referrals of human trafficking, according to data from the UK Human Trafficking Centre that is collected from victims who are happy to pass on their details.

The level of awareness among police about cases of forced labour is still much lower that we would like.Klara Skrivankova, Anti-Slavery International

Referrals from the UK are in the top 10 per cent of nationalities, with 52 from the UK.

Klara Skrivankova, anti-trafficking expert from Anti-Slavery International told Channel 4 News that instances of forced labour are more common than is publicly recognised. “But cases of exploitation and forced labour are not exclusive to the traveller community. It’s not a UK specific thing either,” she said. “It’s very significant that people understand it can happen to any worker.”

Raising awareness
Professionals who come into contact with vulnerable adults need to be aware of the risks they might be under, according to Ms Skrivankova. “If someone goes missing from the street, no-one goes looking for them. These people are an ideal target and it will be a tempting offer – a roof over your head and some income.”

It took the police three years to build enough intelligence to make the arrests at Leighton Buzzard on Sunday. Ms Skrivankova told Channel 4 News said the complex nature of these cases means it can take time to gather information, but argued that they are not always prioritised.

“The level of awareness among police about cases of forced labour is still much lower that we would like,” she said. “Very often, someone would pop up in a police station saying they’re not being paid properly. They might be a bit agitated or vulnerable. It’s considered a minor case.

“But to someone who knows about issues of trafficking and slavery, they would know that it’s a sign. It takes a specialist, targeted operation and people with knowledge about this to uncover what’s going on.

Laws against slavery
The law against slavery in the UK was strengthened in April 2010 with the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which for the first time, made it illegal to hold someone in slavery or servitude, or require someone to perform forced or compulsory labour.

A woman in London was the first person to be convicted under this new legislation at Southwark Crown Court. Rebecca Balira, 45, took Methodia Mathias from Tanzania to the UK and forced her to work as an unpaid slave for six months.