(Buzzfeed) Britain’s Hidden Homeless Slaves
Recruited from soup kitchens and street corners with the promise of cash, drugs, or drink. Locked in squalid conditions, beaten, and forced to work brutal shifts to pay spiralling debts. A BuzzFeed News investigation reveals how hundreds of Britain’s homeless people are being trapped into modern slavery – and Theresa May’s flagship anti-trafficking initiative is failing to protect them.
The short, stooped man known as Kredens worked from dawn till dusk – laying bricks, plumbing, plastering; even sewing furs. His masters beat him often, and when they no longer needed his labour they sold him on to new slave masters – shifting him from worksite to worksite, city to city. Sometimes they threw him scraps of food or a crumpled banknote. Sometimes they paid him nothing at all.
Kredens had struggled through a 30-year ordeal as a modern slave not in some lawless failed state, but in cities across Britain. Tempted away from his Polish hometown on the promise of a good job with decent pay in the UK, he had fallen into the hands of a brutal human trafficking ring. Even when he managed to run away, with nowhere to go he was soon recaptured by slave gangs who prey on rough sleepers on Britain’s streets. For decades, it seemed he was locked in a cycle of homelessness and enslavement from which there was no escape.
But then, as he neared his 60th birthday, it seemed there might be a way out. “You are not alone,” the then home secretary Theresa May promised victims as she unveiled the Modern Slavery Act 2015 – a landmark law designed to stamp out human trafficking in Britain. “We are here to help you.”
The pledge was simple: If Kredens plucked up the courage to come forward and tell the police about his ordeal – and if his story was believed – he would be given official recognition as a victim of modern slavery, entitling him to government protection under the new law. So Kredens came forward. Then, in the temporary shelter of a safe house, he waited to learn his fate.
The good news came on 11 October last year: An official letter congratulated Kredens on having gained victim status under the Modern Slavery Act. That entitled him to another couple of weeks in the safe house while he got himself back on his feet. But, just as he was beginning to contemplate his new life as a free man, the bad news hit.
The Home Office had denied Kredens the right to remain in Britain. As a former slave, he could not show that he had been gainfully employed during his time in the country – rendering him an “illegal immigrant” in the government’s eyes and shutting him off from any access to state welfare, including housing. Without a roof over his head, he would once again be at the mercy of the trafficking gangs targeting rough sleepers. Because of the very nature of the exploitation the government had just officially recognised, he was being denied help and cast back into danger.
A BuzzFeed News investigation today exposes how gaping holes in the government’s flagship modern slavery strategy are leaving victims like Kredens homeless, destitute, and vulnerable to re-trafficking or deportation – even after they have been officially granted government protection. The investigation reveals how trafficking gangs – emboldened by the government’s failings – are preying in growing numbers on Britain’s swelling homeless population in plain sight of the authorities. As well as migrants smuggled in from abroad, the victims include British citizens, snatched from the streets in broad daylight.
To expose the scale of the problem, BuzzFeed News has surveyed 75 homelessness and trafficking charities; interviewed dozens of police officers, government advisers, lawyers, charity workers, and rough sleepers; conducted weeks of surveillance to gather secret footage of “suspected traffickers”; visited “tent cities” where exploited workers are sleeping overnight; and interviewed six victims – including the first media interview with a victim of the notorious Rooney family gang, who held 18 homeless and disabled slaves captive for over a decade, and two victims of a prolific trafficking gangmaster who enslaved scores of workers in the UK.
It can today be revealed:
● Exclusive data shows hundreds of homeless people have been captured by slave gangs in the UK in the past three years – but that is likely a fraction of the total because many cases are never documented, with the government, local authorities, and many police forces failing to keep any data on the trafficking of rough sleepers.
● In one case currently under investigation, BuzzFeed News has learned a trafficking network is suspected of controlling up to 250 victims in Britain, many of whom were homeless.
● Britain’s slaves have been kept in fetid, rat-infested caravans, sometimes without heating, bedding, or running water; chained up; beaten; and even locked in outdoor “rabbit hutches”. Their captors steal their ID documents, often using them to commit fraud and other crimes, and extract trumped-up “debts” from their illegally low wages.
● Traffickers are approaching homeless people at soup kitchens, shelters, and rough-sleeping sites across the UK and luring them into slavery with the promise of cash, drugs, or alcohol.
● BuzzFeed News identified seven suspected trafficking hotspots in London, Birmingham, and Bradford and obtained secret surveillance footage of vans picking up destitute and homeless men from street corners and taking them to local worksites.
● Victims who approach the Home Office for help are often rounded up and deported as part of the government’s policy of making Britain a “hostile environment” for “illegal immigrants” – making many afraid to come forward.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, the Home Office issued a statement calling modern slavery “a barbaric crime” that “remains a top priority”. The government’s focus on the issue has already led to promising results, the statement said — modern slavery arrests more than doubled in 2017, and there are now 500 live anti-slavery police operations around the country.
“We are also taking action to significantly improve the system for identifying victims and supporting them to leave situations of exploitation and begin to recover and rebuild their lives,” the statement said, pointing to plans to extend the support period offered to victims to 90 days. The Home Office declined to discuss the case of Kredens or any other victim, saying it does not “routinely comment on individual cases.”
The revelations come as the government faces mounting pressure to get to grips with the crisis of homelessness sweeping Britain, following a public outcry over the death of a rough sleeper outside the entrance to the House of Commons last week. The Home Office’s policy of rounding up and deporting homeless foreigners was ruled illegal by the High Court at the end of last year, and the installation of spikes to stop people sleeping rough in several British cities has been met with widespread criticism.
“The greatest human rights issue of our time”
Trafficking of homeless people sits at the crux of two grave and growing emergencies facing the government. The number of rough sleepers in the UK has more than doubled amid a housing crisis and sweeping welfare cuts since the Conservative government came to power in 2010, and the number of modern slavery cases soared to an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 victims nationwide.
While prime minister Theresa May has called human trafficking “the greatest human rights issue of our time,” major flaws in her Modern Slavery Act are rendering survivors defenseless and allowing slave masters to escape unpunished.
In order to qualify for the support offered under the Modern Slavery Act, victims must come forward to the National Crime Agency – Britain’s equivalent of the FBI – and go through a rigorous assessment process to prove they have been trafficked. Telling the police about the abuses they suffered at the hands of their traffickers is, for many, a terrifying ordeal. While officers assess their applications, victims get placed in a safe house with medical care and counselling. But as soon as the process is over, that support quickly dries up.
If the victim receives what the NCA calls a “positive conclusion” – meaning they are granted formal recognition as a victim of modern slavery – they get just two more weeks of guaranteed care and safe accommodation before being turned out on the street to fend for themselves and potentially face the wrath of the traffickers they gave evidence against. For victims who are not believed, they have just two days to pack up and get out of the safe house. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the NCA noted that the government recently promised to make a series of tweaks to the system, including offering victims a longer period of support. “We welcome any measures taken to improve the welfare of victims of modern slavery,” a spokesperson said.
Many victims of modern slavery are too afraid to come forward for assessment, officials, charity workers, and victims told BuzzFeed News, because they are afforded little protection after being asked to give evidence against their traffickers. And the Modern Slavery Act has fallen short of its aim to make it easy to prosecute slave masters: The number of convictionsagainst perpetrators has remained low since the law was passed.
For victims who are not British citizens, like Kredens, the risks of coming forward are even more grave, thanks to another of Theresa May’s signature pledges as home secretary: a raft of policies designed to crack down on immigration and create what she called a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants in Britain. Under these policies, foreigners in the UK – including those from EU countries – are shut off from any access to state welfare and risk deportation unless they can show that they are formally employed and earning at least £153 per week. BuzzFeed News has reviewed evidence showing that foreign trafficking victims who approach the authorities asking for help are being locked in immigration detention centres or deported – even after being granted formal recognition as trafficking victims.
In one case, a Home Office official wrote to a charity working with a victim of child sex trafficking who had been brought to the country as an infant and sold to a paedophile ring. In the email, the Home Office announced that the victim – now in his forties – had been granted formal recognition as a victim of modern slavery, but was still being slated for deportation.
“I hope [the victim] will be pleased with the positive decision,” the official wrote.
But even those who do not face deportation are far from being out of the woods. Because they have no right to public funds, many fall quickly into homelessness and destitution – leaving them acutely vulnerable to the trafficking gangs targeting rough sleepers.
Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government was wrong to refuse the right to remain to a Ghanaian man who had lived in Britain as a slave for 20 years – raising the prospect that foreign victims of trafficking could appeal against attempts to drive them out of the country. But for many it is too late.
There is no government requirement to track any of the potential slavery victims processed through its assessment system – meaning that most simply drop off the radar as soon as the support period ends – and no data is gathered on the number of homeless people who have been enslaved by traffickers in Britain.
BuzzFeed News surveyed 75 charities and submitted Freedom of Information requests to all of the country’s police forces to gather its own data on the trafficking of homeless people in Britain. The exclusive dataset found 278 offences had been recorded by police in the past year, while 254 cases had been tracked by charities over the past three years. But this is “the tip of the iceberg”, said Caroline Haughey, a barrister on the prime minister’s modern slavery task force.
While there is likely to be some overlap in the two sets of figures, only the London database for homelessness and five charities tracked how many homeless trafficking cases they had seen, even though 69% of organisations surveyed nationwide said they had come across such cases. More than a dozen of Britain’s 49 police forces either declined BuzzFeed News’ requests or said they did not keep such data.
In a single case against a trafficking network only just busted, BuzzFeed News has learned that 150 victims, many of them homeless, have been interviewed by police and a further 100 potential victims have been identified.
The government’s own independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, said the victim assessment system was “failing” because “people are falling through the gaps” and called for an urgent response to BuzzFeed News’ findings. “What’s been revealed shows that this crime can happen anywhere in the UK,” Hyland said. He has called on the government to start tracking the trafficking of Britain’s homeless people and consider giving all recognised victims the right to remain in the country for a year with access to state welfare.
Rough sleepers are natural targets for the traffickers: easy to find on street corners or in shelters, often desperate, lacking supportive family or friends, and frequently suffering from mental illnesses or substance abuse. “If they’re an alcoholic, they’ll feed them with alcohol; if they’re into drugs, it’s drugs; if they’re mentally unwell, they’ll take psychological advantage,” said Haughey, the barrister on the prime minister’s modern slavery task force.
While some may return from gruelling work in harsh conditions with a pittance in their pockets, many others are forced to work inhumane hours tarmacking driveways, renovating homes, laying paving, or operating factory machinery, then made to sleep in metal cabins, packed caravans, or single-family homes crammed with 40 or 50 others.
“If you look at some of the conditions these people have been kept in, if you kept an animal in those, you’d be committing an offence,” Hyland told BuzzFeed News. In one case, 25 people were found living in the garden of a terraced home in “what can only be described as rabbit hutches”, said Helen Gordosk, a National Crime Agency officer who specialises in busting trafficking rings.
In one of the few cases that has come to light in recent years, nine members of the Rooney family in Lincolnshire enslaved 18 people – many of them homeless – for up to 26 years. BuzzFeed News obtained the first interview with one of the Rooneys’ victims since the family’s conviction for modern slavery offences last year. The survivor, Fred, told how he was bundled into a van while visiting a soup kitchen.
The police missed two opportunities to save him and other victims before 2014, when officers finally raided the site where the slaves were being held. In one instance, an officer actually returned Fred to captivity after he had been arrested for working on the Rooneys’ cannabis farm. After the Rooneys’ slaves were freed, the three who were not British citizens fell into destitution, with one sleeping in a bus shelter and another in a cemetery because they no longer qualified for state welfare, following the introduction of Theresa May’s new “hostile environment” laws.
The stories of Fred, Kredens, and the four other victims interviewed for this story are corroborated by government records, court proceedings, and the testimony of charity workers and lawyers involved in their cases. The victims’ full names are being withheld to protect them from retaliation.
Their stories paint a Dickensian picture of a modern Britain in which those who fall through the cracks of society can be brutally exploited in plain sight. In Fred’s case, the ordeal ended when he was rescued and a new life began. For Kredens, there is no such happy ending.
In 1986, when Poland still lay behind the Iron Curtain, Kredens was a young plumber living in a small village. An uncle made it to England and promised to help him find work if he followed. His plane touched down at Heathrow airport that September.
Kredens was short, square-jawed, and so sturdily built that his friends back home had nicknamed him after a bulky kind of Polish cabinet. His uncle’s promise of work didn’t come good, and an Iranian man named Hamid offered the unemployed Kredens a job building a new hotel for what sounded like decent money. But when he got to work he found the hours were long and the pay was a fraction of what he had been promised. Then Hamid confiscated his identification documents – and that was when Kredens realised he was trapped.
When Hamid no longer had any use for him, he found Kredens another employer. The new boss paid Hamid £700 for the connection and, when none of the cash came his way, it dawned on Kredens that he had been sold. The man put him to work sewing furs.
Bit by bit, Kredens was losing control over his life. Short on cash for so long, he was now homeless. His new boss had an extra room in his home, and let him stay there – informing him that his weekly wage would cover the rent, meaning that he would be paid nothing at all. At the weekend he worked night shifts for another employer, but when he returned with extra cash in his front pocket, it was confiscated.
Over the years, Kredens would be sold from one boss to another – working as a labourer, plumber, electrician, plasterer, security guard, cleaner, and hotel receptionist – sometimes paid pitifully low wages, other times compensated only with shelter or food.
Kredens told BuzzFeed News his story as he sat hunched over a steaming mug of tea in a safe house. “It’s not just about me, there are more people in a similar situation,” he said. “They are desperate to survive.”
Kredens’ fall into the hands of traffickers was gradual, but other victims saw their freedom slip from their grasp from the very moment they set out for the UK. In 2015, two men named Charles and Mariusz were approached separately in their respective Polish hometowns and presented with a job opportunity in Britain. Charles was given 30 minutes to make a decision. They both said yes, and soon both were in convoys barreling west through the night. Once in the UK — Charles by Eurotunnel, Mariusz by ferry at Calais — they were whisked up north. And that’s where they would meet one of Britain’s most prolific trafficking gangmasters.