Modern-slave family rescued in dead of night

24 October 2017, 00:01

It's 5am, midwinter, on a bitterly cold morning in the Midlands.

I've arranged to meet investigators from the charity Hope for Justice at a secret location, their hub.

For days the team has been planning the rescue of a whole family suspected to be the victims of modern-day slavery.

Operations like this, conducted by the charity, are meticulous. There are carefully set up meetings with victims in advance and rescues are timed for when their exploiters are not around.

Surveillance is also sometimes carried out to determine how risky the location is, and the individuals involved.

When we arrive we are briefed by Peter and John, who ask for their identities to be protected because their work puts them at risk from traffickers.

They explain to me that the victims they recover usually do not want to engage with the police.

"They have complete distrust in authority, in anyone really," Peter says.

That is why the charity is, in effect, filling a gap that law enforcement simply cannot.

Peter, who is a Polish outreach worker for the charity, says they plan to first "secure the place and make sure everyone is safe - then we are going to take the family with us."

"All their belongings are ready," he says. "Everything is packed. We will then move them to a safe place where we can interview them."

Myself and cameraman Martin jump into a car driven by Peter, while his colleague John, a former police officer and now investigator for the charity, follows behind in a van.

Under cover of darkness we pull up alongside a street lit dimly by overhead lamps illuminating a lone woman who stands next to a suitcase.

Peter jumps out and introduces us very briefly. Her name is Agnieczka and she's from Poland. Her husband Rafal and their two young children are waiting in an upstairs flat nearby.

The stairwell is run down and dirty, there is rubbish on the floor in the hallway and it's dark and dank.

When we enter a flat on a higher floor, we are immediately faced with two crying children: Oliwia, aged two, and one-year-old Brian.

John tries to put everyone at ease by saying "good morning" in Polish. "Dzien dobry", he says, before telling the children: "No need to be frightened now, okay?"

There is urgency now because we need to leave the area quickly. The traffickers, as Peter describes them, visit every day and could arrive at any minute.

Agnieczka, Rafal, Oliwia and Brian haul their whole lives, contained in just a few bags, down the stairs in silence.

Outside on the street, as Peter and John pack the van, they tell me that the exploiter has been controlling the victims "on a daily basis".

"We know that he has a couple of friends who are quite dangerous members of the community and because of the kids we want to make it as smooth as possible," Peter says.

"We don't want to take any unnecessary risks so we want to be out of here as quick as possible."

Later, at a secret and safe location, Peter and John interview the family to establish what exactly has been happening to them.

Throughout the rescue I've been struggling to understand how two adults were able to be brought under the complete control of another, to the extent where their life is not their own.

They have reached the point where, as a family unit, they have been surviving on £10 a week each for months.

They have become reliant on soup kitchens and foodbanks, which is where Peter originally came into contact with them.

They say their exploiter has been stealing their meagre wages and child benefit every month.

"Our first priority was our kids," Rafal says. "We were worried for their safety - were always looking through the window and looking at the phone. When I don't answer he would call us 15 times a day.

"I wouldn't call that a life. I was afraid to go out on the street."

The family came to the UK looking for work and a better life for their children but struggled with permanent employment and accumulated some debts.

They were approached by a fellow Polish national at a library asking if they could use their address as a postal drop to help them get a GP appointment.

Agnieczka agreed, and she tells us that is where things started to escalate.

Within a few weeks, more and more letters were being posted to the family home. Agnieczka and Rafal were then introduced to one particular man who started making increasing demands.

Agnieczka says she was forced to open fake bank accounts by the man who, she claims, also stole their identity cards and national insurance numbers.

John, from the charity, tells me that the family have been "controlled psychologically" and are also the victims of "forced criminality".

Rafal says: "I was afraid of him and I didn't know what to say to the police and I didn't know what he would do if he found out."

It's an unusual case that John deems to be modern-day slavery. The family are then presented with a choice.

They can be referred on to the Salvation Army for a phone call assessment to decide if they qualify for the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), or report their case to the police.

The NRM is a government programme that helps set slavery victims up in safe houses.

They opt to report to the police because, as Rafal says, "he had no right to lock up my children and take away our documents".

After giving a statement to the police the family are then referred on to the NRM and housed hundreds of miles away in a safe house, where they have begun a new life.

The Hope for Justice team in the Midlands, Zoe's Hub, is mostly made up of former police officers who have experience investigating exploitation.

I spoke to Gary Booth, a retired detective who leads the team, who says while it is unusual to come across whole family units as victims, it's not unheard of.

"From a trafficker's perspective they look at a family as a commodity and each member of that family is a means of earning money, illegitimate money," he tells me.

"He has dehumanised the parents and clearly that has a knock on effect with the children. One of their parting comments to my colleagues today was that their life hasn't been worth living for the past six months."

Not all rescues carried out by Hope for Justice are so dramatic or take place in the early hours of the morning, but most, more than 80%, are for victims of forced labour.

Shortly after this rescue, there is another, and then another. Over a number of months we accompany the team on further operations.

Witnessing their work the reality hits me: this is 2017 Britain, and we are far from having a grip on this crisis.

The "human conveyor belt of slavery" the charity describes to me is reflected in the continuous rescues they carry out.

It's clear that the true scale of modern day slavery is far greater than anyone realises.

Victims are hidden away and many cases are complex.

Ultimately the line between exploitation and slavery is blurred.

Perhaps that is why many of these victims appear to be slipping through the cracks.