Lengthy intelligence work led to arrests of Travellers on suspicion of slavery


BACKGROUND:THIS YEAR a man contacted Bedfordshire police, alleging he had been enslaved, frequently beaten and threatened with more violence after being offered work outside a job centre.

The allegations prompted months of covert intelligence and led directly to a dawn raid yesterday by 200 police, complete with armed officers, helicopters and dogs, on an Irish Travellers’ caravan site in Little Billington, south of Milton Keynes.

Twenty-four people, whom police believe had been held hostage, were taken away for medical treatment and interviews: some were Slovakian, others Polish or Romanian. A few were English, who had been homeless before arriving at the Green Acres site.

Five Irish Travellers, four men and a woman, have been arrested under the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010, a rarely used piece of legislation brought in after fears that criminal gangs across Europe were combining to enslave the weak.

Some of the alleged victims held at Green Acres had lived in dilapidated caravans, four at a time; two had slept in a garden shed, while police believe others had been kept in a horse box, although that was not present yesterday. One was soiled with excrement, others were badly malnourished, sources 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,” said Det Chief Insp Sean O’Neil.

“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,” added Det Chief Insp O’Neil, of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Constabulary’s major crimes unit.

The alleged victims had been recruited and offered work laying tarmac, or other such jobs, after they left welfare benefit offices or job centres in the region, but instead, endured beatings and were forced to tout for work and hand over the monies earned.

The Travellers settlement at Green Acres is long-established, privately owned and licensed. It is near the town of Leighton Buzzard and has 20 brick-built homes on eight plots, along with other Traveller caravans.

Bedfordshire police are no strangers to the site. Police spokeswoman Jo Hobbs said officers had been called out there in the past in connection with allegations of violence. “We have had our suspicions about the site for some time.”

The UK’s Human Trafficking Centre has been investigating allegations that criminal gangs have been co-operating across Europe to send illegal immigrants into Britain, who then end up in the clutches of enslavers.

“This is a form of human trafficking that the UKHTC recognises and has helped a number of police forces with over the past two years,” a spokesperson told the Daily Telegraph, adding that British citizens had been found held against their will in earlier inquiries.

Last night, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Constabulary continued to question the five arrested yesterday, but were also hunting for three others wanted for questioning in connection with the Green Acres discovery.

Saying the numbers of suspected victims involved forced the police to mount a major operation, Det Chief Insp O’Neil said: “We are aware the operation has caused a lot of disruption to the other residents of the site and we thank them for their co-operation and understanding.”

Last year, lobby group Anti-Slavery International warned that slavery in Britain was becoming increasingly frequent, with up to 4,000 young women alone brought in to be forced into a life of prostitution without pay, “sometimes with 20 men a night”, or required to work for 18 hours a day as domestic servants.