LONDON – Three women have been freed after spending 30 years held captive in a south London home, including one woman believed to have spent her entire life in domestic slavery, police said Thursday.
London's Metropolitan Police announced the rescues after two people — a man and a woman, both 67 — were arrested early Thursday on suspicion of forced labor and domestic servitude. The suspects were later released on bail.
The arrests were part of a slavery investigation launched after one of the women contacted a charity last month to say she was being held against her will along with two others.
The charity went to the police, and the women — a 69-year-old Malaysian, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old Briton — were freed on Oct. 25.
Kevin Hyland, head of the Metropolitan Police's human trafficking unit, said the women are "highly traumatized," having had "no real exposure to the outside world" for the past 30 years.
"Trying to find out exactly what has happened over three decades will understandably take some time," he said.
Police initially said they did not believe any of the victims were related, but later appeared to backtrack, saying the relationship between the three is part of the investigation and they will not speculate on it.
The police also said there is no evidence to suggest anything of a sexual nature, but cautioned that the investigation is still not finished. Police also would not speculate on any motivation, disclose the suspects' nationalities or say if the suspects were a couple.
The revelations raised numerous questions about how the women's ordeal began and why it endured for so long. What brought them to London? What freedoms — if any — did they have? What restrictions and conditions were they subject to? Did neighbors ever see them? Did they ever try to escape?
The women — whose names have not been released — are now safe at an undisclosed location in Britain and have been working with severe trauma experts since their rescue, Hyland said.
They are doing "as well as we can expect them to," according to Anita Prem, founder of the charity that helped facilitate their release. "Thirty years of your life to be taken away is completely horrendous."
She would not disclose how the women ended up in captivity or if any were related, saying only they were held in a "very difficult" situation.
"They were subjected to mental and physical cruelty and slavery," Prem said, but declined to elaborate so as not to jeopardize any potential prosecution.
The 30-year-old appears to have been held in domestic servitude for her entire life, police said.
The catalyst for the initial phone call to Freedom Charity appears to have been a documentary on the BBC about forced marriages, seen by one or all of the captives.
"They knew they needed their freedom," said Prem, whose charity promotes awareness of child abuse, forced marriages and honor killings but who said she does not believe any of the women were in a forced marriage. "It took enormous courage and bravery to pick up the phone."
What followed the first call was a series of secret and sensitive conversations with the women in order to gain their trust and facilitate a rescue. Prem said it does not appear that they previously had tried to escape.
"If you've got women who've been held for over 30 years in slavery, it's very difficult for them to just physically walk out the door," Prem told the AP. "They were absolutely terrified and very traumatized about what had happened to them and what would happen to them if they were caught leaving."
She noted that the women — who all speak English and apparently have had access to the news over the years — walked out of the house "with nothing at all" and needed to be reassured they'd be safe, warm and sheltered.
By tracking where the phone calls were coming from, London police managed to find the house in the borough of Lambeth, south of the River Thames. Police are not disclosing the exact location.
After repeated, tentative calls to the charity, two of the captive women agreed to meet at another location on Oct. 25, police said. The first two — the British woman and the Irish woman — walked out under their own power and identified the house where they'd been held. At that point, police said they went in and rescued the Malaysian woman.
Hyland said there was a delay in arresting the two suspects — neither of whom are British — as police worked to establish the facts of the case and to ensure that the women were not further traumatized.
"When we had established the facts, we conducted the arrests," Hyland told reporters.
Hyland said while the women had some "controlled freedom," police were still working to establish what sort of conditions they lived under for the past 30 years.
"For much of it, they would have been kept on the premises," Hyland said.
He said his unit, which deals with many cases of servitude and forced labor, had seen previous cases of people held for up to 10 years.
"But we've never seen anything of this magnitude before," he said.
Prem called it "unbelievable" to think women could be held for 30 years — let alone on a busy street in central 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 said. "We don't know who our neighbors are."
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