This is how migrants are being trafficked to grow marijuana in the UK


marijuana farm
traffickers exploit migrants’ desire for economic

Rishabh R.

It was “like a dog’s life”, one Vietnamese women told me about
her experience of living in the UK. She had been trafficked into
the country and said she had “no fixed job and no fixed
accommodation”. The woman, who I interviewed as part of my
research exploring human trafficking and Vietnam, has now
returned to Vietnam.

But the distinction between trafficking and illegal migration is
a complex and political one – and some people who the UK defines
as victims of human trafficking, don’t see it that way. Another
man who I interviewed, who had also returned to Vietnam after
being smuggled to the UK to work at a cannabis plantation, told
me he had been “very happy and would very much like to go back”.

A new report I co-authored for the UK’s
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner details the types of routes
Vietnamese people use to get to the UK – and highlighted the
shortcomings of British authorities in tracking and helping those
trafficked into the country.

Most of the victims of trafficking into the UK are part of a
law-abiding diaspora community who have established successful
niche businesses such as nail shops, Vietnamese supermarkets and
restaurants. Yet some parts of the Vietnamese community have
excelled at the cultivation of cannabis, growing it on an
industrial scale throughout the UK and which form a significant
 of the wider UK’s billion-pound cannabis market.

In the last ten years, the wholesale cultivation and distribution
of cannabis has proved to be so profitable to Vietnamese cannabis
growers that the economic opportunities available in the UK have
become a magnet for new illegal migrants keen to try their luck.
In February 2017, police in Wiltshire, in the west of
England, discovered a nuclear bunker that had been
converted to house a vast cannabis plantation, staffed
by Vietnamese migrants.

Making the journey

News of the economic prospects for advancement in the UK have
spread in Vietnam over recent years. Despite widely reported
macro-economic growth across Vietnam, prospects for many are
limited by poor education, under-employment and corruption. While
parts of Vietnam stagnate, parts of the Vietnamese diaspora in
Germany, France and the Czech Republic are prospering.

As a result, new areas for migration from Vietnam
include communes within the central provinces, which are poorer
than their northern counterparts, such as Hai-Phong where initial
migrations came from. The journey for those Vietnamese migrants
who attempt to come to the UK illegally is expensive and can cost
up to £30,000. The migrants who attempt it are not the poorest in
their communities but have to take on heavy debts or sell their
businesses to make the journey.

The routes are well-established. One route is
a long journey via Russia and then across through Eastern Europe
with an extended stay in France before crossing
the channel illegally in lorries. A shorter route is to use
flights direct to Ireland or Holland, using legal visas before
taking ferries to the UK and which costs even more.

For some the journey is simple, for others, it can be dangerous
and those who make it report a lack of shelter, warmth and food
during their trip. They are also vulnerable to criminal groups
who control parts of the journey, such as access to lorries in
Calais. On arrival, some migrants are indebted, isolated and
vulnerable – and are exploited.

The Vietnamese government
does not recognize the issue as a human trafficking problem, but
as successful economic migration.

Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

Children are extra vulnerable

The Vietnamese authorities see the issue not as trafficking but
as economic migration, something they encourage due to the large
remittances it brings in. On the whole, non-government
organizations in Vietnam and the Vietnamese community in the UK
agree. In my interviews with them I found they are cynical of
many of the claims made by new illegal arrivals into the UK that
they were trafficked. These claims are viewed as being motivated
by a desire to prolong their stay in the UK as they will abscond
from any refuge they are placed in.

This tension is most apparent when it comes to children. In
Vietnam, childhood ends at 16 and some Vietnamese families
believe that at 16, a boy is robust enough to make the journey
and that paying for his trip will be a profitable investment.
This means the Vietnamese community in the UK and the Vietnamese
authorities often don’t acknowledge that young people are in fact
children under UK law.

While our research among the Vietnamese community in the UK shows
that yes, many adults found in the UK illegally do fraudulently
claim to be children, many are genuinely aged between 14 and 17
and are picked up working in dangerous conditions, mainly within
cannabis farms. The protections of the Modern Slavery Act mean that while young
people are no longer prosecuted and are treated as victims
instead, the accommodation they are offered is not secure and
they are often re-trafficked before they are
correctly identified.

Better tracking

The UK government is an invidious position. It is keen to be at
the forefront of the battle against trafficking and modern day
slavery and to offer protections for those genuine victims. But
it also wants to discourage future migrants who might make the
journey in the future.

Not enough is known about the victims, who they actually are and
to what extent the allegations they make of trafficking are true.
Our report concludes that data on victims’
experiences within the National Referral Mechanism for human
trafficking is neither accurately recorded, nor properly acted
on. We recommend a wholesale redesign of the data management
system, which will ensure information about victims is properly
recorded, analyzed and disseminated.

If a person is discovered to have been trafficked, the
traffickers must be prosecuted. But Vietnamese criminal groups
are often a low police priority and are time-consuming and
difficult to investigate. We recommend the police recalibrate
their response by working with trusted contacts within the
Vietnamese community in order to identify the key players and
curb their criminal profits. Ultimately, it is elimination of the
profits from cannabis cultivation and people trafficking which
will reduce the numbers of potential victims prepared to make the
journey to the UK.

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