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The rescue of three women in London who were allegedly held as slaves for three decades underscores the magnitude of human trafficking and that it is not a “third world” phenomenon but something that can happen in the most modern, sophisticated cities in the world.
It does not just happen to the very young, either.
The BBC reports that a Malaysian woman, age 69, an Irish woman, age 57, and a Briton, age 30, were rescued from “horrific conditions” in a house in Lambeth in south London. A couple was arrested in the case on suspicion of holding the women in servitude for some 30 years (the youngest may have been born into slavery). They were released on bail until January.
The plight of the three women was uncovered after the Irish woman called Freedom Charity after watching a documentary about forced marriages by Muslim clerics in British mosques, according to the Irish Times.
That initial phone call, in mid-October, led to a series of secret telephone calls and delicate negotiations that eventually led to the women's rescue later that month. The case was not made public until the arrests of the couple, believed not to be British, were made on Thursday.
"They knew they needed their freedom," said Anita Prem, who founded Freedom Charity, according to the Associated Press. "It took enormous courage and bravery to pick up the phone."
The charity contacted the police, who then worked with the charity and the women to secure the release. Two of the women agreed to meet the authorities on Oct. 25 and easily identified the house where they had been held; police then rescued the third woman. They are said to have had “controlled freedom,” but very little is known about what their daily lives were like or how they met the couple or ended up in a situation of suspected forced labor.
Kevin Hyland, who heads the police's human trafficking unit, said the women are "highly traumatized," as they had "no real exposure to the outside world" for three decades. "Trying to find out exactly what has happened over three decades will understandably take some time," Mr. Hyland said.
The women are being held in an undisclosed location.
This case is generating worldwide headlines, especially because of the duration of captivity, but it is not unique, and that is something that is often misunderstood.
Ross Reid, a spokesman for the Center for Social Justice in the UK, told the Wall Street Journal that this case “highlights a shocking underworld that is operating in the UK."
"This case in Lambeth proves that slavery is no problem of the past, but one that haunts modern-day Britain," Mr. Reid said. His group had recently released a report on human trafficking, which noted that more than 1,000 trafficking victims were found in the UK in 2012.
According to the Christian Science Monitor in a cover story last year, human trafficking is far more prevalent than most people realize in the US as well:
It doesn't just take place in the sweatshops of impoverished Indian villages or in Thai brothels, but on US streets from San Francisco to New York. The federal government has estimated the number of domestic trafficking victims to be in the tens of thousands annually. Victims range from Southeast Asian indentured nail salon manicurists to Mexican agricultural workers to underage American prostitutes.
And in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote of the movie “12 Years a Slave” to highlight that modern slavery is still very much alive.
The United States is home to about 60,000 people who can fairly be called modern versions of slaves, according to a new Global Slavery Index released last month by the Walk Free Foundation, which fights human trafficking. These modern slaves aren’t sold in chains in public auctions, so it’s not exactly the same as 19th-century slavery. Those counted today include illegal immigrants forced to work without pay under threat of violence and teenage girls coerced to sell sex and hand all the money to their pimps.
There are, of course, many more ambiguities today than in the 1850s about how to count slaves, but the slavery index finds almost 30 million people enduring modern slavery. More are in India than in any other country, and in some countries, such as Mauritania, children are still born into slavery.
This case immediately recalled a high-profile kidnapping uncovered in May, when another three women who had been missing for a decade were found in a home in Cleveland, Ohio. Their abductor, Ariel Castro, who was sentenced to life for kidnapping and repeated rape, committed suicide in September.
His neighbors were shocked that such a horrific tragedy had played out under their noses. The same sentiment is being expressed in this case. Ms. Prem from Freedom Charity, for example, said it was “unbelievable” that this could happen on a busy street in London. "I think one of the reasons that nobody knows is that we're so busy all rushing around and people don't ask questions," she told the AP. "We don't know who our neighbors are."
Immigration may be an element to this story. Writing in the Independent, Aidan McQuade, a director of Anti-Slavery International, said that insufficient protections for non-EU members can make foreigners more vulnerable to human traffickers.
Unfortunately, here at Anti-Slavery International we have found that too often the protection isn’t available for those from outside the European Union who find themselves in the UK illegally and are treated merely as illegal immigrants, rather than victims of crime. That protection is crucial, not only for the traumatised to rebuild their lives, but also to build their trust in the authorities so they can work with them to catch and prosecute the criminals who enslaved them. We hope these women will be able fully to enjoy their new-found freedom soon. We also hope thousands of others in slavery will be offered the same chance. Unfortunately, much must be done to achieve that.