Three arrested in human trafficking crackdown

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The Independent Online

Authorities today cracked down on a human trafficking gang in what is thought to be the largest operation of its kind ever in the UK, police said.

More than 200 staff from nine different organisations took part in the crackdown on the organised crime group believed to be trafficking people into the UK for cheap labour.

Three men were arrested this morning at a field near Holbeach, South Lincolnshire, on suspicion of human trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation.

Northamptonshire Police said more than 60 men and women from Eastern European countries including Poland and Lithuania had been taken to Kettering, Northants, where they are now being treated as potential witnesses and victims.

Officers also searched 21 houses in Kettering and across the Midlands as well as a business premises in Market Harborough, Leics.

A spokeswoman said four men and a woman had also been arrested on suspicion of people trafficking and money laundering.

The huge crackdown, codenamed Operation Ruby, involved the East Midlands Foreign National Crime Team, Northamptonshire Police, the UK Human Trafficking Centre, the UK Borders Agency, the Migrant Helpline, Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

It centres on allegations people were recruited through advertisements and agencies in Eastern Europe to travel to the UK on the promise of work.

When they arrived, it is thought their documents were taken from them and a proportion of their wages was withheld to pay for housing and transport costs.

Det Supt Glyn Timmins, director of Investigations at Northamptonshire Police, co-ordinated today's operation.

He said it was the culmination of months of liaison, investigation and planning involving the agencies.

He said: "This has been a co-ordinated, large-scale operation as part of an investigation into the activities of what we believe is an organised crime group that has exploited people as cheap labour in fields across this region.

"The fact that so many organisations have come together to act in this way is a demonstration of how seriously we take our responsibility to support people who have been exploited in this way and to disrupt this unacceptable activity."

Nick Kinsella, chief executive of the UK Human Trafficking Centre said they had provided "tactical and strategic advice" and Simon Excell, UK Border Agency regional deputy director, added: "Human trafficking of any kind, whether for sexual or labour exploitation, is an appalling crime where people are treated as commodities and traded for profit.

"It is a modern form of slavery. But both UKBA and the police are determined, with our specialist foreign national crime teams, to stamp it out and catch the ringleaders."

He said they were taking tough action against employers who hire illegal migrants - naming and shaming them, imposing heavy fines, prosecuting and imprisoning them when appropriate.

More than 60 officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) were involved in the operation today.

Soca deputy director Andy Baker said: "Soca is also determined to tackle human trafficking by focusing on the countries migrants come from and the ones they travel through.

"We are working closely with our international partners to increase the risk to serious organised criminals in other countries and reduce the profitability of their activities."

Paul Whitehouse, Chairman of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority added: "Protecting vulnerable workers and dealing with rogue gangmasters is what we do.

"The action taken today shows that no gangmaster can get away with this abuse, the GLA and our colleagues in other agencies are watching and will deal with the unscrupulous individuals that use their control over the lives of their workers to cause misery."

The crackdown also involved Kettering Borough Council and Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service.

Both helped police search premises in Kettering where it is believed workers were living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions.

Luke Hodson, of Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: "Inter-agency action such as this is vital and today's operation could be one of the most valuable life-saving pieces of work we carry out between now and Christmas."