An unusual case of human trafficking in Britain is generating extensive coverage in the world press.
Police and other professionals fighting human trafficking seem amazed that the victims in this case appear to have been virtual slaves for 30 years without being physically restrained.
One senior officer has spoken vividly of the “invisible handcuffs” that appeared to bind the three women involved to their alleged captors.
But why so surprised?
Anyone working in the field of cultic abuse could tell them that it is perfect possible to reduce people to virtual slavery through emotional and psychological abuse.
The professionals working in human trafficking however are clearly used to less subtle, more brutal methods.
Here are the basic facts to date: On November 21, police acting on a tip-off from a charity arrested an elderly couple in London over allegations that they had kept three women for up to 30 years in conditions that amounted to slavery.
A statement from New Scotland Yard identified the victims as a 30-year-old Briton, a 57-year-old Irish national and a 69-year-old Malaysian.1
“These women are highly traumatised, having been held in servitude for at least 30 years with no real exposure to the outside world...,” said Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland of the Met's Human Trafficking Unit (HTU).
“Our unit deals with many cases every year but has never unearthed such a staggering example of people held against their will for their whole life time,” he added.2
In a statement the following day Commander Steve Rodhouse tried to spell out what for them was the unique aspect of this case.
Officers in the Human Trafficking Unit were used to dealing with cases in which the victims had been physically and sexually abused to keep them in captivity, he said. This was something different, however.
“We do not believe that this case falls into the category of sexual exploitation, or what we all understand as human trafficking,” he said.
“It is not as brutally obvious as women being physically restrained inside an address and not allowed to leave.
“What Kevin [D.I. Hyland] and his team are trying to understand is what were the invisible handcuffs that were used to exert such a degree of control over these women.
“Trying to label this investigation as domestic servitude or forced labour is far too simple.
“What we have uncovered so far is a complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years, brainwashing would be the most simplest term, yet that belittles the years of emotional abuse these victims have had to endure.
“We believe at this stage to the outside world this may have appeared to be a 'normal' family.”3
Forget the shackles
Anthony Steen, chairman of Britain’s Human Trafficking Foundation, made a similar point in comments to BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.
"You've got to think of slavery as something different from what it was in the 18th century when people were in shackles,” he told journalist Sean Ley.
"It's psychological slavery, it's emotional slavery, it’s debt bondage slavery. It's changing: every time we catch up with it is running away in another direction..." he added.
In this case, he said: “The so-called slaves did have mobile phones and apparently they had television and they could go out so it's going to be very much more psychological slavery than actual physical slavery and that is even more difficult to detect."
Initial media coverage of this affair compared it with the ordeal of Elizabeth Fritzl in Austria, whose father imprisoned her for 24 years and repeatedly raped her. But that is well wide of the mark.
We know already that in this case, the victims were not locked away, at least not physically. They were, on the face of it at least, free to come and go as they pleased.
Professionals in the field of human trafficking are more used to dealing with victims who have suffered beatings and sometimes rapes to keep them compliant.
The harrowing case studies at the Human Trafficking Foundation’s website – forced labour, child/sex trafficking, domestic servitude – make that abundantly clear.4
They appear to be less familiar with the idea of these “invisible handcuffs” that control victims with a minimal of physical coercion.
But for anyone familiar with the cult phenomenon this is old news.
The days are long past when “cult mind control” was presented as a unique, almost magical form of manipulation against which unwary mortals were helpless.
Professionals in the field now place it in a broad spectrum of abuse that operates in different forms in other walks of life. They draw parallels for example between cultic manipulation and the dynamics of an abusive relationship.
Other academics studying cults – or new religious movements as they prefer to call them – have fought a determined rearguard action to play down the significance of mind control. Some have questioned its very existence.
This time around however, it may be more difficult to dismiss: because this time, the phenomenon has broken into the mainstream; and this time, we are not talking about a religious movement.
Latest reports in the British media suggest that both the suspects and the alleged victims were once members of a political cult: they appear to have been active in something called the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre, in Brixton, south London.
If that proves to be the case, police could do worse than to consult one uniquely qualified cult expert.
Dr Janja Lalich, professor of Sociology at California State University, spent more than 10 years in the San Franciso-based Democratic Workers Party, which she now characterises as a political cult.
It was that experience which shaped her subsequent academic career investigating the dynamics of cultic abuse. She spent some time working with cult expert Dr Margaret Singer, 'who will be a familiar name to some of the regulars here).5
But what does all this have to do with Scientology? Well, more than you might think.
A review of recent US lawsuits by former members and a look at a case out of Mexico reveal more than a few ironies – of which more next time.
1 “Two people arrested by Human Trafficking Unit”, New Scotland Yard statement, November 21.
2 From the November 21, police statement. Officers launched their investigation after being contacted by the London-based Freedom Charity, which campaigns against forced marriages: one of the three women, the Irish woman had approached them after seeing them featured in a BBC documentary on the subject. On Saturday the charity reported a five-fold increase in phone calls since the story broke.
3 From the November 22 police statement “Update following arrests by Human Trafficking Unit”. In the same statement, DI Hyland said that all 37 officers in the HTU were now assigned to the case, a measure of how seriously they are taking the case. Given the case spans 30 years of alleged abuse however, they made it clear that the investigation would take months: officers have seized 55 bags of evidence – more than 2,500 exhibits – which they will have to examine.
4 You can get an idea of the kind of cases they normally encounter at this part of their website.
5 I recommend the book they produced together, Cults in Our Midst. You can see a complete list of Lalich’s books at her website, cultresearch.org.