Two people being questioned after police rescued three alleged slavery victims, including a 30-year-old woman who spent her whole life in servitude, have been released on bail. The woman, who is British, was rescued alongside a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 69-year-old Malaysian woman from a house in Lambeth, south London, last month, after one of the women called a support charity asking for help.
A couple both 67, were arrested at the house at about 7.30am on Thursday as part of the investigation into slavery and domestic servitude. They were bailed until a date in January, Scotland Yard said today.
Police believe the trio may have been held against their will for more than three decades. Investigating officers said they had "never seen anything of this magnitude before" and described the three as "deeply traumatised".
There was no evidence to suggest anything of a sexual nature, police said. Speaking outside Scotland Yard's headquarters in central London yesterday, detective inspector Kevin Hyland said: "We've established that all three women were held in this situation for at least 30 years. They did have some controlled freedom.
"The human trafficking unit of the Metropolitan Police deals with many cases of servitude and forced labour. We've seen some cases where people have been held for up to 10 years but we've never seen anything of this magnitude before." Hyland said there was a delay in arresting the suspects, who are both non-British, after the women were freed on October 25, as police tried to establish the facts of the case.
"The women were released as soon as possible," he said. "There was a delay in the arrest. This was down to the fact that we had to work very carefully with these people who were highly traumatised and it was very difficult to establish the facts. We needed professional assistance from outside agencies. The last thing we wanted to do was increase that trauma. Until we had facts to justify where we are now, we delayed that arrest."
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Hyland said he was unable to confirm any relationship between the suspects and the three women who were freed. "Clearly, because of the nationalities of the women that have been held victims, it's very unlikely they are related in any way," he said. "It's part of our investigation - who had any freedom, what sort of freedom, under what conditions that freedom was allowed."
He added: "This is an extraordinary case. We have had cases where people have been held for up to 10 years previously but three decades is unseen before in the United Kingdom. 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."
Scotland Yard said the Irish woman contacted the support organisation Freedom Charity on October 18 to say she had been held against her will for more than 30 years, and that two others were held with her. She and the British woman met charity workers and police on October 25. They told them where they had been held and officers went to the address and rescued the Malaysian woman, before all three were taken to a safe house.
Freedom Charity, which aims to advise and support victims of forced marriages or honour-based violence, got in touch with police after they received a call from one of the women following television coverage on forced marriages. Charity founder Aneeta Prem said the alleged victims were believed to have suffered physical and mental harm, but were able to walk out of the property after repeated but tentative contact with the organisation's call centre.
She told Sky News: "We started in-depth talks to them when they could, it had to be pre-arranged. They gave us set times when they were able to speak to us. It was planned that they would be able to walk out of the property. The police were on standby. They were able to leave the property, but it was done in such a way... it was a very, very excellent way it happened.
Prem said the two people arrested were considered the "heads of the family", and that the women were "absolutely terrified" of them. She added: "They felt they were in massive danger. I don't believe the neighbours knew anything about it at all. It was just an ordinary house in an ordinary street. They were very restricted on everything they could do. We absolutely thrilled this has happened."
All three women were taken to a place of safety where they remain. Scotland Yard said further inquiries by police disclosed the location of the house, and "sensitive negotiations" were conducted by the charity.
Hyland added: "We applaud the actions of Freedom Charity and are working in partnership to support these victims who appear to have been held for over 30 years. A television documentary on forced marriages relating to the work of Freedom Charity was the catalyst that prompted one of the victims to call for help and led to their rescue."
Officers said the two suspects have been taken to a south London police station where they remain in custody. MP Frank Field, chairman of the Modern Slavery Bill evidence review and vice-chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, described the victims as "brave".
He said: "People need to understand that these aren't one-off cases - modern slavery is alive and well in Britain, and needs to be stopped. We need police forces to be working much more closely with local non-government organisations, such as Freedom Charity, to help raise awareness and spot the signs of this evil, which is taking place right under our noses. It was incredibly brave for one of the victims to call for help - much more needs to be done to help victims come forward."
Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe told BBC London 94.9 radio station yesterday: "If the allegations are true that someone's been kept against their will or been abused for 30 years that's a horrendous thing and we're all shocked by that."
A Home Office spokesman said: "The Home Secretary is shocked by this appalling case and while the police need to get to the bottom of exactly what happened here, she's made clear her determination to tackle the scourge of modern slavery." Earlier this year the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) - a joint operation by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - revealed it helped in 1,485 cases of possible forced marriage in 2012, involving 60 countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and North America.
The statistics for last year show that of the 744 cases where the age was known, more than 600 involved people under the age of 26.