Nine of the 24 alleged slaves from the Irish Travelers site, in Bedfordshire, have refused to help police with their inquiries. One of the alleged slaves has spoken out insisting the five arrests were complete rubbish.
Following a four-month undercover operation the police raided the Travelers site, arrested five of the Travelers and freed 24 of the alleged slaves. The police said these people were suffering from malnutrition, were in need of medical attention and were being forced to live in unhygienic conditions.
One of the men allegedly rescued by the police said he had been living in a caravan on the Traveler’s plot for several years. The man, who is in his 50s, said he had worked as a paver and had been paid £50 ($80) per day.
He told the Guardian “I think it's all a load of rubbish and they just hate Travelers. Plenty of men who were here wanted to be here and they were getting paid. The police coming in heavy-handed like this is just wrong."
The man said that he had being working with one Traveler family for 15 years. They had provided him with accommodation and work when he had nowhere else to go.
He explained “The police told me I couldn't come back but I told them it was my home and if I wanted to go back I would go back.” He has refused to cooperate with the police investigation.
One of the wives of the arrested Irish Travelers said that the police allegations were “ridiculous”.
She said “The men who were taken were getting paid £30 a day, they had somewhere to live, this is all a load of nonsense."
She continued “Isn't it better that they have a roof over their head?" What are they going to do now – when the police have finished with them they will be homeless. It's up to them how they kept their homes, but they could come and go whenever they pleased. It's complete lies and they are trying to make Travelers look bad. There are two sides to this story."
A police spokesperson said “We are giving help to all of the men, but if they do not want it then obviously we are not forcing them to take it."
On Sunday morning 200 police officers raided the site along with a helicopter, dog patrols and armed officers.
Police arrested four men along with a heavily pregnant woman on suspicion of slavery offences. The 24 alleged slaves were taken to a medical center. The police reported that these people were being kept in horrendous conditions, were forced to work long hours and were not being paid.
It is being claimed that the Irish Travelers lured these men from dole queues and homeless shelters. However the wife interviewed insisted that these people came voluntarily. She said the Travelers were helping men who were down on their luck.
Spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, Paul Donohoe refused to comment on the specific case. However he did say that it is unusual for victims to resist help from the authorities.
He said “We do often see the Stockholm syndrome coming into effect – it is not unusual for people who have been 'rescued' to psychologically identify with their enslavers."
The fifteen men who are helping the police will continue to be assessed for welfare and health needs. They will then be interviewed by detectives. The police have said that it will take a number of days to establish exactly what happened on the site.
Of the 15 men helping the police eight are British, three Polish, one Latvian and one Lithuanian. Two others have not confirmed their nationality. The youngest of the group was 17. He has been reunited with his family.
DCI Sean O'Neil, from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire major crimes unit said he was confident the operation, called Operation Netwing, had broken up a criminal network.
The five Irish Travelers were arrested offences under section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act.
O’Neil said “The new legislation has allowed the investigation more scope and takes into account emotional rather than physical harm. I am confident that while the investigation is in its early stages this is a family-run 'business' and is an organized crime group that has been broken up by the Netwing operation."
The female in the group who is heavily pregnant have been released. The others continue to be held pending charges.