Nine starving 'slave' workers refuse to help police inquiry
HORROR: Full meal 'could kill' malnourished victims
NINE "modern day slaves" who were freed by police following a raid on a Traveller site have refused to co-operate with the investigation as detectives continue to unravel what they believe is one of the worst cases of forced labour in modern history.
Bedfordshire police insist that they have dismantled a slavery ring operated by a "family-run organised crime" syndicate that forced vulnerable men to live in appalling conditions for little or no pay.
Four men, all from the same family of Travellers, were charged yesterday with slavery offences relating to four people found at the site in Bedfordshire, in the UK.
Officers swooped on the Green Acres Caravan Park in Leighton Buzzard in the early hours of Sunday morning after months of undercover surveillance work sparked by a tip-off. They expected to find eight people but were instead confronted by 24 British and eastern European men living in filthy buildings ranging from dog kennels to horse boxes.
Detectives say gang masters targeted the men at soup kitchens, job centres and benefit offices with the promise of work but instead subjected them to a gruelling work regimen, shaving their heads on arrival and forcing them to labour for more than 12 hours a day for minimal wages.
The youngest of those rescued is a 17-year-old boy who has been returned to his parents. At least one of the men had been living there for 15 years.
But in an indication of how many of the men have been institutionalised, Bedfordshire police yesterday admitted that nine of those rescued have declined to co-operate with the investigation. One of the men even returned to the Traveller site yesterday.
Experts working to combat slavery said it was common for victims to empathise with their abusers. "We can't prejudge what has happened here," said Paul Donohoe, of Anti-Slavery International. "But you do sometimes find a situation where captives identify with their captors."
Initial reports suggested that police had been warned 28 times that captives were being held at the site.
Officers stressed that such information had been a misunderstanding. Instead, they said, the investigation was sparked after captives escaped in April and told them 28 people were being held as slaves.
Officers said the remaining 15 men who were rescued were still being assessed at a medical centre. Some of those saved are so badly malnourished that a full meal could prove fatal until their bodies adapt.
Four men arrested during the raid were still being questioned last night while a heavily pregnant woman was released on bail. The raid was one of the first of its kind to use new anti-slavery legislation. Until last year, police forces had to use human trafficking legislation, which was often difficult to prove.
The men arrested have been detained on suspicion of slavery and servitude offences. The maximum penalties for such offences range from seven to 14 years in jail.
Baroness Barbara Young, who tabled the amendment that brought in the new legislation, said the raid was proof that the police are starting to be proactive about slavery: "In an ideal world it wouldn't need to be used but sadly slavery is real and occurs in the UK."