The wide extent of human slavery in parts of East Anglia was revealed at a meeting between representatives of the Catholic Church, local police forces and the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner in Peterborough.
The meeting was initiated by the Bishop of East Anglia, Alan Hopes, and was led by Bishop Patrick Lynch, Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark and Chair of the Office of Migration Policy for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW).
The round-table discussion heard from Catholic priests and specialist police officers with detailed knowledge of vulnerable communities in the region from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East.
The agricultural industry across West Norfolk, Fenland and Lincolnshire was particularly highlighted, with gang masters from Lithuania operating widely.
Police officers working with the Lithuanian and Romany gypsy communities in Fenland explained how gang masters exploited vulnerable new arrivals by isolating them from the local community and controlled them by providing over-crowded housing and transport to work in the fields.
They would then take a large proportion of the wages and sometimes passports in return.
Workers then often ended up in debt to the gang masters, giving them more leverage over the exploited workers and their bank accounts, which were often used to perpetrate fraud.
Female workers who got into debt were given the option of taking part in sham marriages and fraud to earn their way out of debt.
PC Petr Torak, from Peterborough, told the meeting that within a 12-month period 84 sex workers and 25 brothels were identified in Peterborough, many in ordinary-looking houses.
The largest number of women involved was Romanian, followed by Thai and Hungarian.
In one four-month period in 2014, five Lithuanians in Wisbech were known by the police to have committed suicide by hanging themselves.
Many of the exploited workers come from Catholics countries and sometimes attended local Masses in East Anglian Catholic churches, giving priests the opportunity to support them and maybe help intervene.
Picture: Participants at the human trafficking round-table meeting in Peterborough.