Scandal of slave migrants in Fenland

Operation Pheasant 1
Operation Pheasant 1

Four migrants living in a makeshift camp in Wisbech were revealed as one of the “most shocking” cases in a fact-finding mission on immigrant exploitation.

The tent, set up in a field without sanitation and basic amentities, was visited last week during an inspection to update a multi-agency task force on the progress of the ongoing Operation Pheasant.

The operation was set up between the police, Fenland Council, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue, the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA), and Home Office Immigration Enforcement in January, with the aim of cracking down on issues such as overcrowding, modern slavery and exploitation and illegal practices within the immigrant community.

Following the visit to the temporary camp, councillor Will Sutton, Fenland Council’s cabinet member for housing, said: “I think no matter how you try to prepare yourself for what you will witness it is still shocking to see.”

In another shocking case, a Lithuanian mother-of-two, who paid to come to the UK on the empty promise of full-time work, told how she was threatened by an employer.

Her passport had been taken and she was forced to work longer hours. Then when one of her daughters contracted chicken pox and she phoned to say she couldn’t work, she was threatened with being forced into organ donation if she didn’t work immediately.

Terrified, she contacted Operation Pheasant and the family was taken to a safe place away from the area.

Fenland MP Steve Barclay, who helped set up the operation after securing £178,600 of government funding, was among the group visiting Wisbech for the update inspection last week.

Mr Barclay said the encampment was the “most shocking revelation” of the day, but was pleased to hear the operation had worked with migrant workers to find alternative accommodation.

“The site is due to be fully cleared shortly and will be added to an ever-growing list of successes seen by the joint operation since January,” he said. So far the task-force has carried out 358 inspections and taken 29 enforcement actions. More than 180 people have been rescued from illegal housing and 51 have been helped to return home.

Five buildings have also been prohibited from occupation and one outbuilding has been demolished.

The number of cases of gangmaster activity linked to private rented addresses is 206 and the operation has also raised awareness of tenants’ rights by helping 1,083 people understand landlords’ responsibilities.

Mr Barclay has used experience from the Operation Pheasant project to change legislation including six amendments to the anti-modern slavery bill in Parliament which passed its third reading last month.

He has also led calls in parliament to target the finances of the organised crime gangs behind trafficking, including making it quicker and easier to freeze and then recover the proceeds of crime.

He said: “The exploitation of migrant workers by illegal gangmasters and rogue landlords, and the knock-on impact on local residents who suffer anti-social behaviour, has been a key priority for me in parliament.

“It was therefore very helpful to get out on the front-line with the Operation Pheasant team visiting houses of multiple occupation to get an update on progress over the last year in tackling this abuse. 

“Trafficking people to exploit their labour is a shocking crime and I am determined to ensure the criminals behind this exploitation are tackled. This includes the flagrant abuse of the law by some letting agents. 

“We should be proud locally of the difference being made by the Operation Pheasant team in tackling squalid living conditions which impact on both those in the house and those living nearby.

“The team are making a real difference to vulnerable workers and to their neighbours in the wider community and it also helps inform the changes in legislation that I continue to champion at Westminster.”