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Three women 'slaves' freed after 30 years

Three women have been freed from a south London house where they were held for 30 years in what police described as the worst case of modern-day slavery ever uncovered in Britain.

Police said on Thursday the youngest woman, a 30-year-old British citizen, had had "no contact with the outside world" and was probably born in captivity, possibly within the house in Lambeth.

All three women – a 69-year-old from Malaysia, a 57-year-old from Ireland and the British woman – were described as "deeply traumatised", and were being looked after by specialists.

The extraordinary story of how the women were rescued from three decades of fear and enslavement within an "ordinary house in an ordinary street" in south London emerged on Thursday after the Metropolitan police's human trafficking unit arrested an unnamed man and woman, both 67, at the same property in Lambeth, at 7.30am.

The pair, who are not British citizens, were being held in custody last night. They were arrested on suspicion of being involved in forced labour and domestic servitude, contrary to Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

The arrest was the final act in a highly sensitive and secretive investigation aimed first at rescuing the women and then getting evidence to detain the suspects.

It began when the Irish woman made a telephone call for help last month. She acted after seeing a television documentary and watching Aneeta Prem, the founder of an organisation called the Freedom Charity being interviewed about forced marriage.

The charity contacted the police. Tense negotiations took place over a week during secret telephone calls that the women were able to make from the house, before – in a carefully choreographed rescue – the three women were able to walk out of the property on 25 October, where officers were waiting.

They were taken into specialist care, and over days and weeks, they were coaxed into talking about what had happened to them. Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, who leads the Metropolitan Police human trafficking unit, said "In London we have investigated cases where people have been held in servitude or forced labour for up to 10 years, but 30 years is quite extraordinary and not something we have seen before." He added the youngest victim had probably spent her whole life "under the control or in the company of these people".

Hyland added "They had limited freedom, there was some controlled freedom but their lives were allegedly one of domestic servants or forced labour. They were living in a normal community, but that's not unusual for cases of servitude, trafficking or forced labour."

Prem said her workers treated "every call as a last chance" and immediately sought to help the women. "We gained their trust over a period of telephone calls when they could telephone. That had to be done in secret," she said. "They were very brave to carry on with that. It was very difficult for them to get to the telephone. They gave us set times when they were able to speak to us."

The rescue was planned for 25 October when arrangements were made to meet them at an agreed location. Two of the women – the 30-year-old and 57-year-old – walked out of the house and met the charity workers and the police as planned. They then identified the location where they had been held and the police moved in to rescue the eldest woman from the property on the same day.

Describing the conditions the women have been living in, she said: "They felt they were in massive danger." Their alleged captors were the "heads of the family" and the women were "absolutely terrified" of them.

"They were living lives of domestic servitude," she said. "They did have rooms that they could use but they were really restricted about what they could do and could never leave the front door."

The case has echoes of abductions of three woman by Ariel Castro in Ohio in the US in 2002 and 2004, and of the Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch incarcerations in Austria.

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