LONDON – Two people accused of holding three women captive in a London house for 30 years were released on bail Friday, as Britain struggled to come to terms with its worst case of modern-day slavery.
The man and a woman, both 67, were bailed pending further police investigation into the “barbaric” plight of the women, who include a 30-year-old whom detectives believe has spent her entire life in servitude. She was rescued Oct. 25 along with a 69-year-old Malaysian woman and a 57-year-old Irish woman after they made contact with a charity.
Police said they had to verify the women’s accounts before raiding a house in the south London borough of Lambeth on Thursday and arresting the suspects, described as non-British nationals, on suspicion of involvement in forced labor and domestic servitude.
Detectives do not believe the women were sexually abused but say they are “highly traumatised,” noting they had limited freedom but “no real exposure to the outside world.”
Many questions remain about their ordeal, but experts said they were likely kept in check through physical violence and years of mental subjugation. “Two hundred years ago we had iron shackles that controlled slaves, now we have the psychological shackles that control these people,” said Andrew Wallis, chief executive of the human trafficking charity Unseen.
Detectives said they did not know where the youngest woman was born. The relationship between the three victims is “part of an ongoing investigation.”
“However, we believe that the 30-year-old woman had been in servitude all her life,” Scotland Yard said in a statement.
Police explained the delay in making arrests on the need to work sensitively with the victims and establish the facts.
“We have never seen anything of this magnitude before,” said Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, head of 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.”
Interior minister Theresa May said she was “shocked” and promised action against the “scourge of modern slavery.” But one of her deputies, James Brokenshire, said such cases were on the increase in Britain.
“Slavery is one of those issues which people felt had been consigned to the history books,” he told BBC radio. “The sad reality is that it is still there. We have seen increases year on year in the number of cases reported, and I expect that will continue to increase.”
The women, who are now in an unspecified location, were rescued after the Irish woman “found the courage” to call the Freedom Charity on Oct. 18 after it was featured in a TV program about domestic slavery, police said. The charity usually deals with forced marriage and honor-based abuse but is also used to working with women who feel trapped in difficult situations.
With the help of secret telephone calls, the British and Irish women agreed to meet charity workers and police outside the house, before taking them back to the property to rescue the Malaysian woman.
Aneeta Prem, founder of the Freedom Charity, said, “They all threw their arms around me, and apart from crying enormously, they thanked the charity for the work Freedom had done in saving their lives.”
She said the women’s treatment was “barbaric,” and it would be a “very long journey” to rehabilitate them. “You’re basically looking at domestic slavery, and you wouldn’t expect that to be happening in the UK, in London, in 2013,” she said.
The case has sparked national soul-searching amid warnings that it could be the tip of the iceberg.
The anti-slavery Walk Free Foundation estimates that more than 4,000 people in Britain are trapped in debt bondage, forced marriage, human trafficking and forced labor. In one of the worst cases to come before the courts, an 84-year-old man was last month convicted of repeatedly raping a deaf and mute Pakistani girl who had been trafficked into Britain and forced to work for his family as a servant.