Last October, Volteface reported on how Vietnamese children are being trafficked to the UK in large numbers and forced to work in inhumane conditions. Whilst Vietnamese girls are usually trafficked for the purpose of prostitution or to work in nail bars, boys are generally forced into cannabis cultivation. Despite this being a known phenomenon for years, police have not managed to adequately tackle the issue of child slaves hidden in plain sight all over the country.

The cannabis farms are usually relatively small and located in terraced houses that have been converted for growing cannabis, complete with complex ventilation, lighting and watering systems. A recent article in The Guardian told heart-breaking stories gathered from interviewing young Vietnamese boys who have suffered horrific treatment at the hands of gangs forcing them to grow cannabis. The harrowing tales of these teenagers tell of how they were held captive and ordered to care for the plants, with threats of repercussions, including violence or food deprivation if not done properly. The houses often had dangerous exposed wires and blocked up windows so no natural light could get in. The victims faced total social isolation, left alone in empty houses with no contact with the outside world. One boy, named Boa, describes how we was left with nothing to keep him occupied and slept on a sofa shoved into the narrow hallway, because most of the other space was taken up by cannabis plants.

These children rarely escape from their situation. They are often locked in so they can’t escape, but even if not, they don’t consider leaving to be an option. They are in a country they don’t know, often speak no English, have no money and do not think anyone will help them. What’s more, they live in fear of the gangs holding them captive and what they would do to them if they disobeyed. Many are told their family owes the gang money and that bad things would happen if they escape. Once found, most victims are too terrified to speak out about their ordeals, but those who spoke to The Guardian did so because they want people in Vietnam who are considering this route to the UK to know the risks.

Many farms go undetected for years, but when the police do raid, the victims of human trafficking are often treated like criminals. The police arrest all those inside the building and many trafficking victims face charges of cannabis cultivation and end up in prison, despite often having no idea they were even partaking in anything illegal. One victim named Tung told The Guardian he was very confused, as he didn’t know what he was doing was illegal, and was advised to plead guilty to cannabis cultivation. In this way, a significant element of the problem is not so much whether the police are cracking down on those cultivating cannabis, it’s that the system is failing to discriminate between the people exploiting others to benefit from the illegal cannabis trade from those being exploited.

(Photo – Wales Online)

Whilst most of these operations are fairly small-scale, there have been a number of recent examples of large operations involving trafficked Vietnamese teenagers being discovered, including in an ex-Barclays bank in Grimsby, a disused sports centre in Newport, and a recently emptied GP surgery in Cumbria. Most notably, a huge former nuclear bunker was uncovered in Wiltshire, with 20 rooms full of cannabis plants, was recently discovered. Three Vietnamese teenagers and one man in his 30s were found inside. They had been living underground, in terrible conditions, tending to the plants for months on end. They were held behind a five-inch thick metal door with no access to daylight or fresh air, instructed to look after thousands of plants. DI Paul Franklin from Wiltshire Police said officers realised that the workers were victims because “no one would do this by choice”, and that it was “grim for anyone, let alone a 15-year old”. The boys are currently being held in an immigration detention centre.

DI Franklin also said:

“This was slave labour. There was no natural light, no running water supplies, water had to be brought in. This is hard, manual labour – its not just a walk around with a watering can. I was shocked by the scale of it. There was no fresh air, just the cloying, sweet humid smell of the plants the permeates everything…We believe they had no choice. I think they were held there in human-trafficking, slave conditions. We have never seen anything on this scale”.

He went on to say that there is a lack of public awareness about the conditions in which cannabis is produced in the UK. He said: “On social media people are asking: ‘Why are police taking action on cannabis? It’s harmless.’ I think perhaps people don’t appreciate that these are the conditions people are working in, that people are being trafficked, and that this is what it takes to get that product on to the streets.” According to Franklin, the public generally perceives that cannabis is not a police priority.

On the flipside to this, there are those who are criticising the police for being ‘soft on cannabis’ and failing to help these children by not cracking down on these criminal gangs. There have also been doubts cast on how prepared the criminal justice system, which goes hand in hand with law enforcement, is to deal with the issue of modern slavery. There have been repeated promises to crack down on the trafficking of children to work in UK nail bars and cannabis farms. David Cameron even raised the issue in his 2015 visit to Vietnam, but the flow of Vietnamese children into the country continues and there has never been a prosecution of human trafficking from Vietnam to the UK.

There is, perhaps, cause for optimism for the fight against modern slavery under the current government. Theresa May was outspoken on the topic of modern slavery in her role as Home Secretary and championed the Modern Slavery Act. As Prime Minister, she has committed to setting up the first government task force on the subject and commissioned an independent review into whether the Modern Slavery Act is doing its job, with positive overall results so far. She has expressed a determination to work collaboratively with law-enforcement agencies across the globe to stop gangs operating across borders. She has even said that she will allocate over £33 million of our aid budget to create a 5-year International Modern Slavery Fund, focused on high risk countries where we know victims are regularly being trafficked to the UK. However, she has spoken about modern slavery as a whole and has not been so vocal on cannabis farms in particular, for which there may be specific measures that need to be taken. It has also yet to be seen whether her measures will make a marked improvement on the situation.

Many are calling for more to be done to support victims of human trafficking working on cannabis farms when they are discovered. Currently, they are either sent to prison, immigration detention centres or child services. Phillipa Southwell, a lawyer currently representing over 50 Vietnamese victims of human trafficking, says there are many Vietnamese young people in prison for cannabis offenses, despite being forced into it. She said: “I am busier than ever. There are prosecutions on a daily basis. It is alarming that we are still prosecuting victims of trafficking.” This is all despite the statutory defence for child victims of trafficking and slavery in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which rules that a child should not be considered guilty of an offence if they were forced to do it.

However, the other options currently exercised may not be much better. Those sent to immigration detention centres could be held on “indeterminate sentences” or face deportation. And whilst child services may sound like the best place for them, many run away out of fear of the debt they owe the gang or are simply kidnapped again. All is not lost though. Rehabilitation programmes, such as those set up by the Salvation Army aim to provide support to human trafficking victims. They offer safe houses, psychological support, legal advice, education for children, translation services where necessary and material assistance, including food and drink, toiletries and clothing.

Jakub Sobik, from Anti-Slavery International, told Volteface that much more needs to be done to support and protect victims of human trafficking. He said:

“Despite the Modern Slavery Act providing legal protection from a prosecution for crimes people were forced to commit by their traffickers, we still come across cases of young Vietnamese people who get arrested in cannabis farms and then prosecuted. We also way too often see trafficking victims being treated as immigration offenders instead of victims of often traumatic crimes. The government needs to put much more weight behind ensuring that every single victim of modern slavery is protected and fully supported. Until that’s the case, we’ll be losing the fight against it.”

The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 marked significant improvement in the recognition of the problem and in outlining basic protections for trafficking victims, especially Section 45, the statutory defence for victims of trafficking and slavery. Sobik recalls how before the Act, victims going to prison was very common: “You would see one or two local media stories a day of young Vietnamese people being convicted of cannabis cultivation.” There have also been a number of cases successfully appealed with the help of organisations like Anti-Slavery International. In this way, whilst there are still cases of young victims being prosecuted, the situation is better than before.

Theresa May has committed to eradicating modern slavery in the UK during her tenure as PM. (Photo: Pink News)

However, whilst the Act is a step in the right direction, it does not go nearly far enough and support for victims is far from what is desired. Whilst Scotland and Northern Ireland have standards of care written in statute (eg. legal aid, medical care etc.), the Modern Slavery Act in England and Wales lacks this promise of support. This means that there is absolutely no guarantee on the standard of care that victims are receiving once identified, and leaves them at the mercy of the current government to decide. As Sobik described, it is often the case now that victims are treated as immigration offenders, sent to detention centres and sometimes deported.

Therefore, support and protection for victims must continue to be pushed for, whether it be through the police, community work or charities like the Salvation Army and Anti-Slavery International. We need not only proper implementation of the Modern Slavery Act, but for it to go further in terms of protection for victims and standards of care. This could partly be achieved through awareness training for police, judges, local authorities and medical professionals so that they can not only recognise when someone is a victim of trafficking, but also how best to help them once they are identified.  It is also important that the law protects adult victims too, as they may have more agency than their underage counterparts, but many were young when they were originally trafficked to the UK and have been under the radar for a number of years. And even if this is not the case, those found in such conditions could be a victim of modern slavery, regardless of age.

It has also been argued that it is crucial to start prosecuting the perpetrators, who have so far escaped convictions of human trafficking. Taking out drug dealers with laws relating to child exploitation and trafficking rather than drug offences could potentially work as a better deterrent, as the associations with these offences are less desirable for people in prison, for example. It could also help get justice for victims and could potentially mean hitting the people ‘at the top’ or those associated with the trafficking, rather than just those who directly controlled the cannabis farms. This may prove difficult however, and take a great deal of time and money, that the police don’t currently have.

A different issue to how people, both victims and perpetrators, are treated once they are caught cultivating cannabis, is whether they are caught in the first place. There is a capriciousness to the policing of cannabis in the country, where some areas are stricter than others. For example, Durham’s Police Crime and Victims’ Commissioner Ron Hogg recently announced that Durham Police will no longer pursue people for cannabis possession or small-scale cultivation, partly for financial reasons. This is because cannabis is simply not a priority in many areas of the UK. And whilst this could be described as being ‘soft on cannabis’, there is an argument that if they cracked down instead, there would always be people to fill the vacuum, and fast. Many argue that busting cannabis farms makes a difference for all of two hours and that this kind of illegal trade and related exploitation is an inevitability in an uncontrolled black market.

The UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, has criticised police forces for failing to tackle this issue of modern slavery in the illegal cannabis industry. He claims that there is a lack of urgency and absence of commitment from police in dealing with the crime, describing the data gathering as “a mess”. He added that cannabis farms are discovered every week, but then they are “not being properly investigated”.

Patrick Burland of the Modern Slavery Research Consortium has conducted research on the criminalisation of people trafficked for cannabis cultivation. He has critically examined the imprisonment, detention and deportation of trafficked persons and agrees with Hyland’s conclusion that the intelligence gathering is “a mess”, but goes one step further. In reference to a study that will be released soon, he says that of 39 young men working on cannabis farms, around half were judged as being victims of modern slavery, yet nearly all of these faced prison sentences. He said this “makes a nonsense” of the statutory defence for victims.

However, former police chief Tom Lloyd, posed that the reason cases aren’t being investigated fully, and charges brought against those further up the chain, is mostly down to resources. With devastating cuts to the police services in recent years, including 20,000 police officers being cut since 2009, he argued that it is near impossible to follow these cases up to the extent everyone would like. In the current climate, it’s all about priorities and frankly, cannabis is not a priority. Lloyd explained that everybody has their one issue that they think the police should be focusing on and that it is optimistic of Hylands to think that the police could be putting as much time and money into this, when there is a mass of other crimes to be dealing with.

So, when it comes to bringing traffickers to justice and protecting victims, resources may be partly to blame. If we look at how cannabis farms are uncovered, the police strategies are either reactive or proactive. For example, if someone calls the police about smelling cannabis next door, the police have to react. They bust the cannabis farm, arrest everyone there and seize the plants, but they don’t have the resources to go right up the chain and find who is ultimately responsible. Even if they did investigate further, the gangs involved in these operations are international and extremely hard to reach. They might catch the person who drove the van with the trafficking victims inside, but they are unlikely to ever get to the ‘mastermind’ behind the plan. Meanwhile, proactive methods usually involve encouraging neighbours to provide information as above, deploying police aircraft to find houses emitting a lot of heat, but again, this is used less when very little resources are stretched too far. In urban areas this method is probably more likely to catch small-scale personal growers than they are to catch gangs exploiting children.

(Photo: Food Manufacture)

But what if there was an alternative solution to the problem of modern slavery on UK cannabis farms? What if simply trying to crack down on cannabis was not the only option for catching traffickers and helping victims? DI Franklin, from the Wiltshire nuclear bunker case discussed earlier, pointed out that legalising cannabis could be an option. He said:

“Cannabis doesn’t feature highly in terms of police priorities; heroin and crack cocaine do. If you can grow cannabis in terrace houses, under the radar, we probably don’t hit that many of them and there is still good money to be made from it. Perhaps there’s an argument that if it were to be legalised, you could do it upfront and you wouldn’t need all this. But that’s for the government to decide.”

Many advocates argue that legalising and regulating cannabis would solve numerous problems associated with it, including this thorny issue of human trafficking for the purpose of cannabis cultivation. The argument is that where there is demand there will be supply. Since many people in the UK want to smoke cannabis and are doing so despite its legal status, this creates significant demand, and therefore profit to be made.

Therefore, in the current system, it’s an impossible task to try and quash illegal cannabis trade, especially with the scant resources available to the police. If the people involved in one operation are caught, they will just be replaced; there will be a small amount of disruption and then balance will be restored. Arguably, the same thing would happen if you caught people and sent them down for human trafficking. Whilst there is profit to be made in illegally producing and selling cannabis, people will be doing it, and may do this with the use of trafficking victims. Therefore, the only way to stop it is to take the profit out of it for gangs by legalising it and having strict regulations on those producing cannabis in the legal system.

This issue is deeply complex and difficult to tackle. Whilst cannabis regulation may be the ultimate knock for gangs exploiting these children, this is not something that is currently on the books for lawmakers in the UK. Meanwhile, there are children that need help right now, so it cannot be that legalisation is the sole focus of this debate, even if it were to be the long-term goal. Whilst it may not be possible, due to scarce resources, for the police to really weed out those at the top of the gangs, the system can be fairer to victims.

To truly protect victims of human trafficking working on cannabis farms in the UK, we need to make sure that law enforcement officers are aware of this phenomenon so that they can recognise it and that once these children are identified, they are given proper support – practically, legally and psychologically. We need to make sure that we are helping to rebuild their lives, instead of crushing them further.

Words by Abbie Llewelyn. Tweets @Abbiemunch.

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