[h=1]Leighton Buzzard 'slave' empire uncovered in major police raid[/h] Five arrests made after 24 men released from caravan site, some held in virtual captivity for up to 15 years
- Alexandra Topping
- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 11 September 2011 19.35 BST Article history
Twenty-four modern day slaves were released from bondage on Sunday after a pre-dawn police raid found them emaciated, hungry and living in "filthy and cramped" conditions on a caravan site in Leighton Buzzard.
The men Poles, Romanians and Russians as well as British had been forced to survive in a "state of virtual slavery" at the Green Acres caravan site, according to Bedfordshire police.
The men varied in age from about 20 to 50 years old; all vulnerable men who had been recruited from homeless shelters and dole queues. Some are believed to have been in virtual captivity for up to 15 years.
Five people four men and a woman were arrested in the swoop on the mainly Traveller site at 5.30am on Sunday. The raid, involving 200 officers including armed police, dog units and a police helicopter, followed a long-running undercover operation. When police arrived at the site, which is estimated to have around 10-12 family sized plots, they discovered men they believe had been coerced into forced labour.
One had dog excrement on his clothes, and many were starving, said Detective Chief Inspector Sean O'Neil, of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire major crime unit, which was aided by officers from the UK Human Trafficking Centre.
He explained that the men had not received payment for physically demanding labouring jobs, were hardly fed and were given no clothes. If they complained they faced beatings.
"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 others for up to 15 years."
They have now been taken to a medical centre where their health is being assessed.
Police said some of the men will have to be carefully re-introduced to a proper diet; giving them a large amount to eat immediately could prove dangerous, as their bodies have existed on meagre rations for such a long period of time.
"This was a recruitment centre where people down on their luck were brought to," said O'Neil. "They had been found in soup kitchens and benefit offices and told they would be given work, clothing, a home and food.
These were people who might be alcoholics or have no family support, which made them easy prey.
"We heard in one case a man had been sitting on the parapet of a bridge ready to commit suicide when he was spotted by this gang and brought here to the site after being promised paid work and a roof over his head. It was all lies."
When new recruits arrived at the site they would have their mobile phones confiscated and their heads shaved, he added.
"They were told by the people who had brought them here 'you have no family now, we are your family'. If they wanted to leave they were threatened."
The men lived in unsanitary conditions, said Jo Hobbs, a spokeswoman for Bedfordshire police.
"There were up to four men living in tiny and filthy caravans which were unheated, and old. They had no access to running water, no toilet and no washing facilities," she said.
The men were thought to have worked from 7am until 7pm most days, performing a range of gruelling manual jobs including asphalting.
It was likely that they had been threatened to keep them working, said Paul Donohoe, a spokesman for the charity and lobby group Anti-Slavery. "People in this situation find they are not able to leave because, particularly if their immigration status is irregular, their gangmaster threatens to inform the police and they could be arrested.
"They could have also been threatened with violence against themselves or their family."
The five arrests were made under the slavery and servitude provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act, after police launched an undercover operation in April this year, following tip-offs from several other alleged victims.
Weapons, drugs and money were also found at the private site, which is thought to have been occupied by a mostly Traveller community for about 10 years.
The suspects were being held at police stations in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. Once the victims have been questioned, further arrests may be made.
If found guilty of forcing the men into labour, the gangmaster could face up to seven years in prison, said Donohoe. "If these people arrested are found guilty they must feel the full force of the law. Courts needs to send out the message that there is no place in Britain for slavery."
[h=2]The law on slavery[/h]Since the Coroners and Justice Act became law in early 2010, holding a person in servitude has become a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Exacting forced labour is punishable by up to seven years.
The act followed a change of heart by the government, which had argued that existing legislation outlawing slavery gave adequate protection.
The new offences were introduced after intense lobbying by campaigners, including Liberty and Anti-Slavery. They argued that too many loopholes existed because of the difficulty of proving the crime of people trafficking or the intent of a person profiting from forced labour.
The campaign intensified after at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay.
However, Paul Donohoe, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery, pointed out that the sentences handed down in recent cases had been as short as six months. "The campaign goes on," he said.