Warning over rise in multimillion-pound modern slavery

Detective Superintendent Andy Furphy speaking to the media outside the Old Bailey (James Manning/PA)
Detective Superintendent Andy Furphy speaking to the media outside the Old Bailey (James Manning/PA)

The British public has been urged to be “vigilant” amid a sharp rise in modern slavery and more cases of organ harvesting under investigation.

Detective Superintendent Andy Furphy, the Met’s modern slavery and child exploitation lead, issued the warning after the first successful prosecution for trafficking a victim to the UK for his body part.

Wealthy Nigerian politician Ike Ekweremadu, his wife Beatrice and medical middleman Obinna Obeta were each jailed for their attempt to procure a poor street trader from Lagos for a kidney transplant for the couple’s daughter Sonia.

Despite being turned down as a donor by the Royal Free Hospital in London, the crime only came to light when the 21-year-old victim ran away and walked into Staines Police Station.

Organ harvesting court case
Detective Superintendent Andy Furphy (centre) speaking to the media outside the Old Bailey, in central London (James Manning/PA)

On Friday, Ike Ekweremadu was jailed for nine years and eight months; Beatrice Ekweremadu for four years and six months; and Obeta for 10 years in a televised sentencing at the Old Bailey.

Afterwards, Mr Furphy said criminal exploitation of adults had soared by 30% in the last 12 months.

Sexual exploitation of female victims increased by around 24% and domestic servitude rose by 12% in the same period.

The senior officer said: “The trajectory of modern slavery crimes shows very little signs of slowing down.”

“They are making millions and millions and millions a year, every year, most of which is transported to other parts of Europe and further afield.

“It’s in our communities, it’s in the services that we use.

“It’s in the industry that builds road networks, buildings, or houses.

“It’s in the beauty industry.

“It’s in the sex industry.

“My advice is to be vigilant, to report even if it’s just a suspicion that you think something’s not quite right.

“Don’t think a tiny bit of information or intelligence is insignificant, you never know that might just break the back of an organized crime group that are exploiting people.”

“We use all methods available to us to protect the vulnerable and reduce the harm in London’s communities.

“At all times we put the victim first. They’re often very scared, abused, malnourished, wary of authorities due to the extreme nature of their ordeal.

“The victim in this particular case was vulnerable, given his economic circumstances, aggravated further by significant wealth and political influence of those who have now been convicted.

“It sounds like something from fiction, from a book or a movie.

“Well, let me tell you: the abuse of power and wealth by these people over a vulnerable young man, it’s astonishing.”

Bringing the first successful prosecution was his “proudest” moment.

Paying tribute to the young victim, he said: “His bravery has given strength to others.

“And now this is not the only case of organ harvesting under investigation.”

Royal Free Hospital stock
A view of the Royal Free Hospital teaching hospital in the Hampstead area of the London Borough of Camden. (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Detective Sergeant Andy Owen described how the victim had turned up at the police station with only a mobile phone with no sim card, a toothbrush and scant clothes.

Over eight hours of interviews, he gave an account of how he was picked up in Lagos while selling phone accessorises from a wheelbarrow and brought to the UK.

He fled in fear for his life after over-hearing a plan to take him back to Nigeria for the procedure after the transplant plan in London failed.

Further inquiries led to Ike Ekweremadu, Nigeria’s deputy Senate president, as “sponsor” for the young man’s travel.

Fearing that the Ekweremadus may never return to the UK, investigators prepared to wait years until they learned the couple were on a flight to Heathrow on June 21 last year.

The team was scrambled and the Ekweremadus were detained as they stepped off the plane with 30,000 US dollars and Naira, Mr Owen said.

They went on to arrest Sonia Ekweremadu, who was educated in the UK, and identified Obeta’s address on the Old Kent Road in south London from the victim’s phone.

A search of Obeta’s home uncovered the victim’s birth certificate and a fake High Court affidavit stating the victim and Sonia were biological cousins.

Detective Inspector Esther Richardson said it was a challenge preparing for trial with no case law to work with.

She said: “This crime type sees rich and powerful people looking to exploit for vulnerable people for their organs.

“And we suspect that this happens across the world.

“Our victim was a commodity.

“And this was a transactional process, just like any drugs or firearms deal.

“This type of crime is facilitated by organised criminal networks.

“The tragedy of this is that it appeared that the welfare and well-being of the victim was of little or no consequence to Sonia getting a kidney.

“There was no evidence of any care plan for the victim.”

She added: “The victim himself showed tremendous courage to come forward and to give evidence against powerful people.

“He’s an innocent, young and naive man.

“Having never been on a flight, he was petrified that the plane would fall from the sky.

“When he fled Obinna Obeta’s flat in London, he slept on the streets, fearing that snakes might bite him.

“Our victim is very fearful for his safety, and that of his family back in Nigeria.

“He has no-one in the UK, no family, no friends, and he’s having to start to rebuild his life from scratch.”

He is one of hundreds of modern slavery victims to be helped by a “navigator” through the Justice and Care Programme.

With navigator support, 90% of victims choose to and remain engaged with police investigations compared to just 44% without.

Programme co-ordinator Julie Currie explained: “They will have been told by their exploiters that they will not be believed, that they should fear the police and authorities or that their families will be harmed if they speak to police.

“All of these things are barriers to a victim speaking out.

“And it is the job of the navigator with the police to help break down those barriers and build up the confidence that any victim is going to need to go through the judicial process.”