Wisbech migrant housing exploitation tackled by police

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Media captionOne Lithuanian migrant worker said he had not seen his family for six years

Police believe gangmasters and rogue landlords could be exploiting hundreds of migrants in a Cambridgeshire town.

Operation Pheasant has been set up in Wisbech to identify seriously overcrowded properties where tenants might be subject to intimidation.

A BBC Look East investigation has found some houses have more than 20 people living in them, often in squalid conditions.

It is estimated that one in 10 homes in the town are overcrowded.

Police said issues had been addressed at 80 homes but house-to-house visits would continue.

'Intimidation tactics'

"We've found quite often these people get moved around the properties, so they'll spend six weeks in one and get moved to a different one," said Nick Webber, from Cambridgeshire Police.

"These people are forced into a situation where they have to choose this or something far worse."

Thousands of migrants from eastern Europe have settled in Wisbech in the last decade and now make up a third of the town's population.

As part of the operation, Cambridgeshire Police is conducting house-to-house inspections with members of Fenland District Council and other authorities to address tenant's concerns and assess the state of the homes.

One worker from Lithuania told the BBC he last saw his family six years ago and despite the poor conditions of his home, he said he wanted to stay in the country.

Fenland District Council said it estimated about 1,000 homes could be overcrowded in Wisbech and that a number of rogue landlords, sub-letters and gangmasters were working together to exploit vulnerable workers.

It said it had seen a rise in complaints about the condition of rented housing and had reported issues of financial exploitation, human trafficking, fraud, theft, antisocial behaviour and unpaid tax.

During the past two years it said it had taken formal enforcement action on 15 agents, including closures, legal action and rehousing of residents into suitable alternative accommodation.

Insp Robin Sissons, from the Wisbech and District Neighbourhood Policing Team, said: "The people that are making the money is the sub-letters, because these are the people that are exploiting the people and are using intimidation tactics."

Cambridgeshire Police said the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) and UK Human Trafficking Centre (HTC) had been made aware of six cases of exploitation that are being investigated in depth following their operation so far.

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