Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire: 24 Slaves Rescued By Police From Caravan Site

12 Sep

Twenty-four people believed to have been held as slaves have been rescued following a dawn raid in Bedfordshire.

One hundred and fifty police officers were involved in the operation at a site close to Leighton Buzzard.

It is believed the people were recruited from soup kitchens, benefits offices and other locations, with the promise of accommodation and work.

When the people were brought to the site though, they had their heads shaved, mobile phones confiscated and made to work as labourers for no pay and live in squalid conditions.

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Video: Five Held On Suspicion Of Slavery Offences 

Five people were arrested during the raid. Detectives are eager to talk to at least another three people in connection with holding people against their will, and slavery offences.

Some of those found on the site are believed to have been held there for as long as 15 years. If they tried to leave they were threatened and beaten.

Detective Chief Inspector Sean O’Neil from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Major Crimes Unit told Sky News: “Generally they were held in dirty, filthy conditions, hardly any food, not replacement clothing, as compared to their gangmasters who were living
in almost palatial backgrounds.

“They were generally the most vulnerable people in society, who can disappear and be held here without anyone knowing they were missing.”

Detectives were alerted to what was going on by 28 people who had escaped from the site.

When they arrived the police expected to find around 15 people who were being held as slaves. After a search of the entire site, a total of 24 men were found, most of them British.

Detectives said they were found in an awful state. They had been living in small caravans or sheds spread throughout the travellers site.

They were made to work as labourers on projects across Britain and even in Scandinavia, detectives added.

In return the men were paid nothing and given little food.

On their one ‘day of rest’ on a Sunday, they were made to get up at 6am and clean the travellers site.

All 24 people are now being cared for at a reception centre, where they will get held from medical and other professionals – one of whom is a specialist in torture.

The four men and one woman arrested, all Irish are being questioned by the police.

:: Anyone with information should contact police on 01707 35598 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

NEWS UPDATE:

Police raided a travellers’ site Sunday to rescue 24 men they said had been held as slaves and forced to live in squalor, some for up to 15 years.

More than 200 officers from Bedfordshire Police entered the Green Acres caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, northwest of London, and arrested four men and one woman, all residents on the site, on suspicion of slavery offences.

Police said the freed men were mostly English, with some of eastern European origin. Detectives said they were all vulnerable — either homeless or alcoholics — and had been recruited by “gangmasters” offering money, the BBC reported.

Bedfordshire Police force had conducted a long-running investigation into suggestions that the men were being held against their will in poor conditions and forced to work for no pay.

“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,” said Detective Chief Inspector Sean O’Neil, from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire major crime unit.

“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.”

He added: “They’re recruited and told if you come here we’ll pay you £80 ($125, 95 euros) a day, we’ll look after you give you board and lodgings.

“But when they get here, their hair is cut off them, they’re kept in in some cases (in) horseboxes, dog kennels and old caravans, made to work for no money, given very, very small amounts of food.

“That’s the worse case. Some are treated a little bit better, but they were told they could not leave and if they did they would be beaten up and attacked.

“But in fact some people did leave and told us what was going on and when we looked back since 2008 we were aware of 28 people who had made similar accusations.”

The rescued men have been taken to a medical centre.

“Some of these people have come off covered in excrement and dirty clothing because that was all they were allowed to live in,” O’Neil told BBC television.

“After being cared for, given food and fresh clothing, we hope to then interview them. That in itself will take a long time because these people are institutionalised.

“One person we know has been here 15 years — so to him this is normal life.

NEWS UPDATE:

It is thought some had been kept against their will for up to 15 years

Five people are still being questioned by police over the discovery of 24 men suspected of being held against their will at a Bedfordshire traveller site.

Four men and a woman were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of committing slavery offences at Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard.

The men, some English and some from eastern Europe, were found in “filthy and cramped” conditions, police said.

Detectives believe some may have been there for up to 15 year

“They were told they could not leave and if they did they would be beaten up and attacked” said Det Ch Insp Sean O’Neill Bedfordshire Police.

Those arrested, all residents of the caravan park, are being held on suspicion of committing offences under the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010.

They are being held at police stations across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

Horse boxes

Weapons, drugs and money were also found at the site, police said.

The raid was launched as part of a long-running investigation by Bedfordshire Police after intelligence a number of men were being held against their will in poor conditions and forced to work for no pay.

The raid on the site, which involved more than 200 police officers and representatives of various agencies including welfare charities, began at 05:30 BST on Sunday.

The 24 men believed to be victims of slavery, were found in sheds and horse boxes, and were taken from the site to a medical centre.

Dozens of police vans remained at the site, which consists of a series of gated properties set off a winding road, until late Sunday afternoon.

Shed at Greenacre travellers site
The men were kept in appalling conditions, police said

Det Ch Insp Sean O’Neil 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 others for up to 15 years.

“Because of the number of victims and suspects and the size of the site, we needed the assistance of many officers from specialist units.”

‘Hair cut off’

The major crime unit was assisted by dog sections, helicopter and firearms support, and officers from the UK Human Trafficking Centre.

Mr O’Neil said the men appeared to have been “recruited” from soup kitchens and benefits offices and included people with problems such as alcoholism.

He said: “They’re recruited and told if you come here we’ll pay you £80 a day, we’ll look after you give you board and lodgings.

“But when they get here, their hair is cut off them, they’re kept,  in some cases, [in] horseboxes, dog kennels and old caravans, made to work for no money, given very, very small amounts of food.

“That’s the worse case. Some are treated a little bit better but they were told they could not leave and if they did they would be beaten up and attacked.

“But in fact some people did leave and told us what was going on and when we looked back since 2008 we were aware of 28 people who had made similar accusations.”

Police have appealed for help and asked anyone with any information to contact them in confidence.

NEWS UPDATE:

Police raid Leighton Buzzard slave empire

Bedfordshire police have uncovered a modern-day slave empire on a caravan site in Leighton Buzzard. Photograph: John O’Reilly

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.”

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.

Maev Kennedy

www.stopthetraffik.org

Related Stories

Five arrested in ‘slavery’ raid 11 SEPTEMBER 2011, BEDS, HERTS & BUCKS

Bedfordshire Police

UK Human Trafficking Centre

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