VIETNAMESE gangs, who have long controlled the UK’s market in cannabis production, are using teenage slaves from Vietnam to tend their illegal crops.
Human rights and anti-trafficking organisations are calling on authorities to tackle these illegal operations and crack down on drug gangs believed to be committing human rights abuses and profiting from slave labour.
In the UK, “cannabis farms” are usually relatively small operations, often located in inner city houses, which have been stripped and fitted with ventilation, lighting and watering systems.
These so-called “farms” are usually tended by one or two gardeners, who are locked inside the premises.
Their only access to the outside word comes through food deliveries and gardening instructions sent by the drug gangs.
A typical cannabis farm contains around 1,000 plants and generates profits of up to £500,000 (US$622,000) for the gangsters each year, such as the cannabis farm in Plymouth, which had been tended by Vietnamese “gardener” Van Nguyen.
Demand for cannabis across the UK remains high with an over two million people using it each year. Casual users are unlikely to be punished with anything more than a fine if they are caught with small quantities of the drug.
Vietnamese gangs’ control of the UK’s “homegrown” cannabis market is said to have risen from around 15 percent in 2005 to 90 percent. Looking to capitalise on the high demand for cannabis, Vietnamese gangs in the UK have been increasing the scale of their operations in recent years.
Last year, British police discovered large cannabis farms managed by these gangs in some surprising premises, including an ex-Barclays bank, a disused sports centre, and a recently-emptied medical centre.
Recent arrests indicate how ambitious Vietnamese drug gangs have become.
In February, it was discovered the former Defence Ministry nuclear bunker, RGHQ Chilmark, which was built in 1985 to serve as the regional government headquarters in the event of a nuclear attack, had been converted into a huge underground marijuana farm of several thousand plants worth an estimated £1 million (US$1.2 million).
During a raid, police found three Vietnamese teenagers tending the huge site. Detective Inspector Paul Franklin from Wiltshire police said officers recognised the four gardeners were victims, explaining, “No one would do this by choice.”
He described the living and working conditions at the site as “grim for anyone,” adding, “This was slave labour.”
Vietnamese drug gangs’ use of teenage slaves within the UK has been known to authorities for years.
In 2015 during a visit to Vietnam, then-prime minister David Cameron promised to crack down on the trafficking of children to work cannabis farms. However, the flow of Vietnamese children into the country continues without the prosecution of a people trafficker from Vietnam ever reaching the courts.
Criminal gangs had for years been using the “Calais Jungle” refugee and migrant encampment in France and its population of 7,000 migrants as a secret holding station to for Vietnamese children.
The children are kept at the encampment before they are smuggled across the English Channel to the UK and forced to work in “cannabis farms” where they were regularly subjected to sexual abuse.
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children chief executive Peter Wanless said: “We are facing a difficult and dangerous situation where children are being brought to Calais by crime gangs on what is the final leg of a horrendous journey.
“They are then being held and sometimes hidden in the encampment while the criminals wait for an opportunity to move them into the UK where they can be abused and exploited.”
In 2015, former head of the UK’s Counter Human Trafficking Bureau Philip Ishola said: “By our calculations, there are around 3,000 Vietnamese children in the UK who are being used for profit by criminal gangs.
“Police and the authorities are now aware trafficked children are being forced to work in cannabis farms, but this is really only the tip of the iceberg. Often the same child will be exploited not just in a cannabis farm, but also in myriad different ways. This is happening right under our noses and not enough is being done to stop it.”
How the Vietnamese children get caught up in these tragic circumstances is highlighted in a recent child trafficking report published by the Salvation Army, which describes the experience of one such Vietnamese teenager who was eventually rescued.
The report explains how a gang, pursuing family debt that had arisen because of medical bills, kidnapped the family’s teenage son, kept him in chains and cut off one of his fingers, which was sent as a warning to hand over the outstanding money.
He was then smuggled to the UK in the back of a lorry and forced to work in a cannabis farm. The report details how the child was so ill-fed he was forced to eat cannabis for food.
Held against their will, with little English and no legal status in the UK, these Vietnamese children feel they have no choice but to accept the exploitation, abuse and terrible living conditions in order to pay off their family’s debt.
Conditions, as criminal defence lawyer Philipa Southwell explains, are “very dangerous. The electricity’s been tapped, there are wires everywhere. The windows are always nailed shut so they can’t leave. There are filters over the windows so the light can’t come in.”
Unfortunately, as Sawti Pande of Child Trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC) explains, tackling this issue is “currently just not a priority.”
As such, the inhumane treatment of Vietnamese teenagers in the UK’s cannabis farms is not receiving the necessary attention from authorities, while most cannabis consumers remain blissfully unaware of the conditions in which their recreational drugs are produced.
The domination of the cannabis market by dangerous gangs is also another reason for the UK to begin moving in the direction of the Netherlands and much of the United States where cannabis can be bought and sold legally.
Not only would this generate an extra one billion pounds in tax revenue per year, but it would also ensure vulnerable individuals would no longer be exploited by drug gangs growing cannabis illegally.