Three women held for 30 years in a house under conditions of servitude

In a two-stage operation launched by the Metropolitan police and the organisation Freedom Charity that had been planned over weeks, a shocking case of domestic slavery was uncovered in the heart of busy London.

On Tuesday morning, Scotland Yard’s human trafficking unit raided a house in south London and arrested a man and a woman (both aged 67) on suspicion of practising slavery and forced domestic servitude.

The alleged captives were three women — a 69-year-old Malaysian; a 57-year-old Irish woman; and a 30-year old Briton — who had been kept under domestic bondage for the last 30 years. The police believe that the youngest of the three could have been born under captivity.

The identity of the captors was not disclosed, though the police confirmed that they were not U.K. nationals. They have been released on bail. According to the police, the couple was arrested once in the 1970s, though they did not specify reasons.

The women were rescued several weeks ago. According to Aneetha Prem, a London magistrate and founder of Freedom Charity, the women are now in a shelter provided by the Charity. They are being counselled but are so emotionally traumatised that they have been unable to provide a full picture of their lives under servitude.

The women were physically, though not sexually, abused. They were not trafficked into the country, but lived in conditions of extreme lack of freedom — in “invisible handcuffs” the police said.

The Freedom Charity, that works with women victims of forced marriage and ‘honour’ violence, learnt of what was happening when one of the women, after watching a television programme on the work of the charity, phoned the free phone service provided to report on her “friend” who she said was being forcibly held in a house where she was only allowed out to hang the washing and sometimes to go to a nearby shop, but only with one of her captors.

Alarmed workers at the Charity then opened the lines of communication with the terrified women, and over days of secret and pre-arranged telephone conversations, gave them the confidence to walk free in a planned escape. One of the women was allegedly denied medical treatment despite telling her captors — referred to by the women as “heads of the family” — that she believed she had suffered a stroke. Though there have been previous cases of human trafficking in the country, this particular case of later-day slavery has shocked the city, as it continued unseen and undetected for the last 30 years in a modern and connected metropolis.

According to the Walk Free Foundation’s annual Global Slavery Index for 2013, an estimated 4200 to 4600 people live in modern slavery in the U.K., out of a population of 63,227,526.

The Index is a country-wise measure of the size of modern slavery in 162 countries. The organisation defines slavery as a practice that “involves one person depriving another people of their freedom: their freedom to leave one job for another, their freedom to leave one workplace for another, their freedom to control their own body”.

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