British men forced into 'modern slavery' abroad

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Media captionOne victim talks about his experience as a 'slave' in England and Sweden

Criminal elements of the British and Irish travelling community have been transporting vulnerable British men abroad to work as virtual slaves.

An investigation by the BBC Ten O'Clock News and Radio 5 Live Breakfast has uncovered at least 32 victims.

The European Commission describes it as modern slavery and says this is the tip of the iceberg.

There have been confirmed cases in six European countries, including Sweden, Norway and Belgium.

The gangs pick vulnerable men off the streets in the UK, who are often homeless and many have drink or drugs problems.

They are promised well-paid work, but are then transported abroad where they are forced into long, hard days tarmacking or paving driveways for little or no money.

One man the BBC spoke to had arrived in the Swedish port of Malmo with two other Britons who all had been homeless when they were picked up. He has asked not to be named, because he fears for his safety.

The men worked 14-hour days for little or no pay and lived in appalling, cramped conditions. They were too frightened to escape, until the Swedish police offered them help. He says there was a culture of violence.

"I've seen people threatened with pickaxes. I've seen people kicked, punched. I've nearly been pushed off a moving vehicle. It's very tense. You're waiting for the next thing to happen, " he says.

'Targeting most vulnerable'

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, says she fears this is only the tip of the iceberg.

"It's a horrible crime and it's modern slavery," she says.

"They are using very vulnerable people and especially in hard economic times, people have lost work, nowhere to live, thrown out from families. We must act much stronger than we have done. It's only recently we have been aware of the amount of the problem."

The project manager of human trafficking at the European law enforcement agency, Europol, believes there have been dozens of British victims. David Ellero says traveller gangs have been doing this for a long time.

"[They are] targeting the most vulnerable in society and forcing them to work, but the cases are not categorised as trafficking. The work is normally carried out in northern Europe, where they work in rural areas and focus on elderly victims.

"These people are intimidated into paying for substantial work, so it is a double crime, exploitation of the victims and fraud of the person paying."

A report into human trafficking in Sweden, published in 2010, found 26 reports of human trafficking for non-sexual purposes. "In particular, these concern British and Irish tarmac and paving layers in Sweden," it says.

"The victims do not usually report personally that they have been the subject of human trafficking because they often have no confidence in the authorities that administer justice and are afraid of acts of reprisal."

Another confidential Swedish police report, obtained by the BBC, underlines just how lucrative the business is for the gangs. Their "conservative calculation" suggests criminal gangs are making about £3m in a year from what the report calls "black labour".

In 2007, Norwegian police estimated traveller gangs operating there made more than £11m in a year. The problem of vulnerable people being used for forced labour has become so serious in Norway that the police have been given new instructions on how to deal with it.

In Belgium, the ministry of justice has said it is currently investigating a case involving British nationals being trafficked into the country for forced labour.

The BBC has also heard anecdotal accounts from soup kitchens, shelters, church groups, homeless charities, anti-trafficking organisations and trade unions which suggest that traveller gangs are also operating in Germany, Holland and Denmark.

Dr Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, says the BBC's investigation shows how vulnerable, often homeless, people were being targeted for forced labour.

"That physically fit British men can be threatened or coerced into working without pay and living in fear for their safety reflects the brutal reality of modern slavery," he says.

"The widespread nature of the problem means that it is essential that local police officers consider new approaches to investigating this crime, such as regular meetings with homeless charities, soup kitchens and migrant drop-in centres to identify risks and potential victims of trafficking, and gather intelligence on gangs seeking to exploit vulnerable people for forced labour."

He believes that the British and other governments should be doing much more to combat the problem. That is certainly on Commissioner Malmstrom's agenda. "This is not worthy of Europe today," she says, "and we should do everything to prevent it."

A Home Office spokesman said: "The government is committed to tackling human trafficking and preventing the harm it causes to vulnerable members of our society.

"The National Crime Agency on establishment in 2013 will have a key role in building on the existing arrangements for tackling human trafficking. Its enhanced intelligence capabilities and co-ordination functions will target the organised criminal gangs involved in human trafficking, wherever they are."

Yvonne MacNamara, director of the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, said her organisation condemned "absolutely slavery and forced labour, not least because travelling people have been subjected to slavery and forced labour throughout their history, including recent history.

"If individuals are suspected of criminality, they should be subjected to the full force of due process and the law."

Additional reporting by Owen Phillips, Kieran Turner and Pam Mangat.

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