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London slave case: Britain needs better laws, experts say

The three women freed from 30 years of captivity are just the 'tip of the iceberg,' activists warn. New laws may be the answer.

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Kevin Hyland, head of the Metropolitan Police's human trafficking unit speaks to the media outside New Scotland Yard's London headquarters in this image taken from TV Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. London police say three women were held for at least 30 years against their will in a south London home. 'They did have some controlled freedom,' Detective Inspector Hyland said.

Sky TV, via Associated Press Television/AP

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Amid shock in Britain over the arrest of two people on modern-day slavery claims, experts warn that it is just the 'tip of the iceberg' and that British anti-slavery reforms currently being discussed in Parliament need to be improved to better combat human trafficking.

Police freed three alleged female victims aged 30, 57, and 69 after one of them phoned a charity to say they had been incarcerated in a south London home for nearly 30 years.

After working with the charity, Scotland Yard freed the women on Oct. 25 but officers described the alleged victims as "deeply traumatized."

“We’ve established that all three women were held in this situation for at least 30 years. They did have some controlled freedom," Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland said. “The human trafficking unit of the Metropolitan Police deals with many cases of servitude and forced labor. 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.”

He said there was no suggestion of any sexual abuse and none of the victims are thought to be related. The 57-year-old is from Ireland; the 69-year-old from Malaysia; and the 30-year-old, who is thought to have spent all her life in servitude, is British.

Police said the arrested couple who are both aged 67 were released on bail to re-appear at Scotland Yard in January.

A hidden problem

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“This is an unusual case in regards to the length of time but in trafficking terms, it’s the tip of the iceberg," says Jakub Sobik at the charity and lobby group Anti-Slavery International. "Official figures say there are around 1,000 victims of slavery and trafficking a year based on statistics in 2012, but estimates say the true figure is between 3,000 and 5,000 in the UK."

“It takes different forms – forced prostitution, agriculture, domestic cleaning. Two hundred years ago we had shackles and chains, but now they use threats of violence, passports, pay, and psychological tools."

Isobel McFarlane at the Salvation Army, which has a government contract to help victims of trafficking, notes that “It’s difficult to get numbers of how many people are involved because every case is different. It could be the woman in the nail bar painting your nails; it could be the guy tarmacking your drive or the man picking vegetables in a field."

“Quite often these people are brought in from Eastern Europe or Africa and promised various things which don’t materialize," she adds. "They are frightened and don’t know where to go, which is where agencies like ours can help.”

All three victims are now in a safe house. It is thought they contacted the organization Freedom Charity after watching a documentary about forced marriages on television. The charity, which believes the women were physically and mentally harmed, then alerted police.

Anti-slavery reforms

There is currently a Modern Day Slavery Bill going through Parliament aimed at combating human trafficking which was announced by Home Secretary Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference this year. It will see life sentences for modern-day slave owners and the creation of a new commissioner to oversee the problem.

This morning Home Office minister James Brokenshire told the BBC, “Slavery is one of those issues which people felt had been consigned to the history books. The sad reality is that it is still there. We have seen increases year on year in the number of cases reported, and I expect that will continue to increase.”

This year's Trafficking in Persons Report from the US State Department notes that Britain increased prosecution of sex and labor trafficking offenders in 2012, during which "authorities reported prosecuting at least 148 sex and labor trafficking offenders with a conviction rate of 70 percent." But while the report noted that Britain saw an upswing in detection and prosecution of trafficking cases in 2012, experts said "there was a need for a tailored anti-trafficking law to facilitate more effective prosecution of this crime."

Although the new bill being considered in Parliament goes towards that end, Mr. Sobik says it needs to include witness protection to encourage more prosecutions. “The victims are too frightened to break the cycle.”

Ms. McFarlane agrees that securing prosecutions is a big problem. “A lot of these people are deeply traumatized and find it difficult to give evidence in court, which is where we offer support. Getting prosecutions is really important, but building cases is expensive and, like these three women, victims go through a lot of trauma and need support.”

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