LONDON - Three traumatised women have been rescued from a house in London after being held as slaves for at least 30 years with one of them having spent her entire life in servitude, police said Thursday.
A man and a woman, both aged 67 and described as non-British, were arrested at their home on Thursday as part of an investigation into slavery and domestic servitude, Scotland Yard said.
The victims are a 69-year-old Malaysian woman, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old Briton who were released after one of them called a charity.
"We have never seen anything of this magnitude before," said Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, who leads Scotland Yard's Human Trafficking Unit.
"These women are highly traumatised, having been held in servitude for at least 30 years with no real exposure to the outside world, and, trying to find out exactly what has happened over three decades will understandably take some time," he told reporters.
Police said they did not know where the youngest woman was born, adding that the relationship between the three women was "part of an ongoing investigation and we are not willing to speculate.
"However, we believe that the 30-year-old woman had been in servitude all her life," a Scotland Yard statement said.
The women, who are now in an unspecified location, were rescued after the Irish woman "found the courage" to call the Freedom Charity on October 18 after it was featured in a television programme about domestic slavery, police said.
The charity usually deals with forced marriage and honour-based abuse but is also used to working with women who feel trapped in difficult situations.
The Irish woman said she and two others had been held against their will in a house in London for 30 years.
The charity raised the alarm with police and with the help of secret telephone calls the 30-year-old British woman and the Irish woman agreed to meet with charity workers and police on October 25.
Police identified the address where they had been held, in the south London borough of Lambeth, and went there to rescue the Malaysian woman.
The two arrests were made almost a month later "as soon as officers had established the facts and were satisfied the victims were aware of police intentions", the police statement said.
They all had "controlled freedom", but Hyland said it was still not clear what that meant in practice.
"Their life was greatly controlled and for much of it they would have been kept in the premises."
Aneeta Prem, the founder of the Freedom Charity, said the women's treatment was "barbaric", adding that she believed they suffered physical but not sexual abuse.
"You're basically looking at domestic slavery, and you wouldn't expect that to be happening in the UK, in London, in 2013," she told Sky News.
'Scourge of modern slavery'
A spokesman for Britain's interior minister Theresa May said she was "shocked by this appalling case".
He said May would wait for the outcome of the police investigation, but "she's made clear her determination to tackle the scourge of modern slavery".
Prem said the two people arrested were the "heads of the family" in which the three women were kept.
"The ladies were absolutely terrified of these people," she said.
"They did have rooms that they could use but they were very restricted on everything they could do."
She said their home was just "an ordinary house in an ordinary street", adding: "I don't believe the neighbours knew anything about it at all."
The women are doing well considering their ordeal, Prem said, but added that she found it hard to believe "that human beings can treat each other that way".
Britain had the lowest prevalence of modern-day slavery of 160 countries in an index published last month by the Walk Free Foundation.
The index estimated that between 4,200 and 4,600 people were held in practices such as debt bondage, forced marriage, human trafficking and forced labour.
Earlier this year, three women were freed after more than a decade being sexually abused in a house in Cleveland, in the US state of Ohio.
Their captor, Ariel Castro, was sentenced to life in prison in August but was found dead in his cell the following month.