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Trafficked to grow cannabis: Vietnamese migrants are being exploited in Britain

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 part 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.

Many of the Vietnamese who leave do so in search of more lucrative work. Asian Development Bank/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

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.

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 organisations 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.

A large Vietnamese community in the UK runs restaurants and supermarkets. jwmoz/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

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, analysed 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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