By Shelley Marsden
THE DISCOVERY last week of three women allegedly held against their will for three decades has provoked debate on the ‘invisibility’ of modern-day slavery.
A house in Peckford Place, not far from the busy centre of Brixton in South London was where police say three women – including an Irish woman now confirmed as Josephine Herivel from Armagh, daughter of mathematician John who was reported to be a WW2 codebreaker against the Nazis– were held captive for thirty years in slave-like conditions.
Officers from the Met’s Human Trafficking Unit arrested two people in their 60’s at their home in South London on Thursday November 21 as part of an investigation into slavery and domestic servitude, and in collaboration with the relatively small Freedom Charity.
The two suspects, a 67 year old Indian man and his 67 year old Tanzanian wife, who were taken to a South London police station and have since been released on bail, have since been linked to thirteen addresses across the capital.
It has emerged that the couple were previously arrested in the 1970s, though police have not said why.
Police were contacted in October by Freedom Charity after one of the women, from Ireland, having gained access to a phone – called them stating she had been held captive in a house in London for more than 30 years.
Further enquiries by police revealed the house’s location, and with the help of negotiations conducted by the charity the three women, a 69 year old Malaysian woman, a 57 year old Irish woman and a 30 year old British woman, were rescued.
The 30 year old may have been born in captivity. Police have refused to comment on speculation she is the Armagh woman’s daughter.
The Metropolitan police are currently collecting statements from neighbours and have said they are satisfied that the three women had not been able to leave the property, had been living with “invisible handcuffs” and were forced into domestic servitude.
Police have found the youngest woman’s birth certificate. It is not yet known whether she attended school or not, but if she did it could pose serious questions for Lambeth Council – there may have been warning signs about her home situation that could have led to the women’s discovery much earlier than now.
Police believe the Armagh woman and the Malaysian woman knew the Indian man from the 1970s, when they all lived together in a Maoist collective together and, when the collective came to an end, somehow the women continued to live with the suspects.
Details of how and why this happened have still to be established, though the Met says they believe there was physical and emotional abuse involved.
The Irish Embassy in London has confirmed it has been asked for assistance in the matter.
Speaking of the case Home Secretary Teresa May said that modern-day slavery is “all around us, hidden in plain sight… supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind curtains in an ordinary street”.
They had been housed in a downstairs flat within a three-storey terrace block, with a public square on one side of the property and a busy road on the other. All three, who were highly traumatised, were subsequently taken to a place of safety where they remain.
Freedom Charity spokesperson Aneeta Prem, who has warned there will be more slavery cases to come to light said: “Hearing about the situation of the women, we took immediate action in planning their safe rescue. Facilitating their escape was achieved using utmost sensitivity and secrecy and with the safety of the women as our primary concern.”
Speaking separately on ITV’s Daybreak programme, she described the moment she met the women: “They’re quite traumatised … but they’re very relieved to be out. When I met them, it was a very humbling experience. They all threw their arms around me, and apart from crying enormously, they thanked the charity for the work Freedom had done in saving their lives.’
She added that one of the key points to have emerged is that all three ladies were utterly terrified of the people that held them captive. She said the address where they were found was “just an ordinary house in an ordinary street that wouldn’t raise any concerns with anybody else”.
Prem said there was worry that the women may not in the end want to leave the property “because obviously 30 years, being held in a very difficult situation, you become very institutionalised to a very bad way of living, so we had to ensure that when they were going to come out they didn’t then decide they were going to go back in”.
At a police press conference officers said they believed the 30-year-old woman who was rescued had lived in the house her entire life against her will, and had no contact with outside world that most people would consider normal., and that the three women were kept under a strong degree of control.
DI Kevin Hyland from the Met’s Human Trafficking Unit said, “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. We have launched an extensive investigation to establish the facts surrounding these very serious allegations.”
He added: “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.”
Investigating officers said they had “never seen anything of this magnitude before” but there was no evidence to suggest there had been sexual abuse of any kind.