To outsiders they looked like a normal family, five people living for years in a typical house in a middle-class neighbourhood in South London.
But police now believe that three of them, all adult women, had been held against their will for at least 30 years, not by chains or locked doors, but by an emotional control so intense it has stunned the officers involved and shaken the country. One of the women, a 30-year old Briton, has spent her entire life living in slavery, according to police.
"Trying to label this investigation as domestic servitude or forced labour is far too simple", Commander Steve Rodhouse of London's Metropolitan Police Service said Friday. "What we have uncovered so far is a complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years, brainwashing would be the most simplest term, yet that belittles the years of emotional abuse these victims have had to endure."
He added that the force had never seen a case like it before and officers are trying to understand "what were the invisible handcuffs that were used to exert such a degree of control over these women."
The case began on Oct. 18, when a 57-year old Irish woman called the helpline of Freedom Charity, a small organization in London that works on issues relating to forced marriages. The woman had seen a BBC television report on the work of Freedom and she told one of the charity's volunteers that she and three others had been held against their will in a house in London for more than 30 years. The call led to a week of careful negotiations and pre-arranged phone calls until finally the Irish woman and the 30-year old left the house to meet Freedom charity workers and police.
They led officers to the house where the third woman, a 69-year old Malaysian, was taken away on Oct. 25. After nearly a month of investigation, police arrested a man and a woman, both 67, on Thursday on suspicion of being involved in forced labour and servitude. Both have been released on bail and none of the names have been disclosed.
"When I met [the women] it was a humbling experience," Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom Charity told ITV on Friday. "They all threw their arms around me and, apart from crying enormously, they thanked the charity for the work we had done in saving their lives."
Police have offered no details about the pair who have been arrested, other than to say they were not British citizens but had been in the country for many years. They had also been arrested in the 1970s but police did not elaborate. On Friday, Commander Rodhouse said the women had been beaten but there were no indications of sexual abuse and the woman left the house occasionally, always escorted by the alleged captors. They had also not been trafficked into Britain and police do not believe there are more victims.
The women, described as traumatized and fragile, are now in the care of aid workers and there are reports one had been denied medical treatment for a stroke.
The case has raised difficult questions about how three women could be held for so long without anyone knowing. Social welfare agencies have said they were unaware of the family and neighbours saw nothing amiss.
"To think in the sophisticated West that it is possible in the 21st century for someone to be born a slave and known only that all their life is a damning indictment on our society and an absolutely shocking discovery," said Andrew Wallis of Unseen, a British organization that helps victims of slavery.
Mr. Wallis said slavery has been on the increase in Britain and elsewhere, and it takes many forms including forced labour, sexual exploitation, forced begging and even organ trading. "We've got a long way to go but we are beginning to look for it. And guess what? When you look for it you find it…We're waking up to the fact that slavery has come back with a vengeance," he said.
Figures on slavery and human trafficking are unreliable because so few cases are reported. A recent British government report put the number of victims in the U.K. at around 2,200 in 2012, up 9 per cent from 2011. The majority – 71 per cent – were adults. A global slavery index developed by Australia's Walk Free foundation estimated that nearly 30 million people live in slavery worldwide. That included about 4,400 cases in Britain and about 5,800 in Canada.
Karlee Anne Sapoznik, cofounder of Toronto-based Alliance Against Modern Slavery, said the Canadian figure is probably much higher because of under reporting. "I would imagine based on the groups that we work with on a regular basis, the number is probably double," she said.
Ms. Sapoznik added that like elsewhere much of the slavery in Canada involves the sex trade and forced labour. And she said most of the slavery cases in Canada do not involve people trafficked into the country.
One of the biggest myths, she said "is that trafficking implies some sort of movement across borders and that's not true… About 70% of cases to date that have been reported in Canada have actually involved our own domestic citizens." Many of those cases involved aboriginal girls and women, she said.
In Britain the government said it plans to move ahead with anti-slavery legislation that would stiffen penalties and could compel multinational companies to produce regular reports on how they are eradicating slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.
Mr. Wallis said slavery won't be curtailed unless business joins the battle. "Globally, I think if we are going to address slavery we have to bring business into the space," he said. "Do we want to live in a world where goods, manufacturing and services are done by slaves? We don't want that and business you have the clout to do this and force this down the supply chain."