Vietnamese children are increasingly being used as forced labour on cannabis farms in the United Kingdom, where they are often prosecuted for crimes they were compelled to do. A recent court ruling may change that. By Chris Mueller. Photo illustration by Johnny Murphy.

After 14 months and 9,000km of travelling, Hai finally made it to his destination, alone at a service station in England. His long journey began in Vietnam, where a man in Hanoi promised him a job in a restaurant in Europe. Uneducated and responsible for taking care of his family after his father had died, the only job Hai could find was recycling used bottles. Working in Europe, he thought, was by far his best option.

His mother agreed and took out a loan against their house to help pay the agent’s $3,000 fee, while his uncle raised the rest.

But when Hai finally made it to England, a Vietnamese man named Cuong met him and drove him to a house in Scotland. It was here that Cuong told Hai he and his family owed more money for the trip, plus interest. The restaurant job didn’t exist, and Hai learned he would have to remain in the house alone and tend to a crop of cannabis to pay off the debt. When Hai protested, Cuong beat and threatened him.

Locked in from the outside, Hai had no choice but to follow his handler’s instructions. Three months later, the police raided the house and Hai was arrested. A solicitor advised him to plead guilty and Hai was sentenced to 24 months in an adults’ prison and told he would be deported after he had served his time. He was only 15 years old.

The story of Hai — whose name has been changed to protect his identity — was provided to AsiaLIFE by the RACE in Europe project, an initiative funded by the European Commission to increase knowledge and improve responses to human trafficking.

Hai’s case is not unique, but rather indicative of a growing problem: the trafficking of Vietnamese, mainly children, to the United Kingdom to work as forced labour on cannabis farms.

Experts say Vietnamese gangs were one of the first to jump at the opportunity to meet the growing demand for domestically grown herb. Today, between 80 and 90 percent of the cannabis in the UK is grown locally, compared to 25 percent 10 years ago. Vietnamese gangs now control a large part — if not the majority — of the UK weed trade. This is despite the fact that Vietnamese only make up a small portion of the UK population — .09 percent, according to the 2011 census.

“It seems the involvement of Vietnamese gangs [with cannabis production] started in British Columbia in the late ’90s,” Harry Shapiro of DrugScope, the UK’s leading independent centre of expertise on drugs, told me. “They diversified away from illegal lumber trade to cannabis growing and, in all probability, the knowledge was transferred to gangs operating within the Vietnamese communities of other countries like the UK.”

The vast majority of the domestically grown weed is produced on ‘farms’ or ‘factories’, which are set up in suburban homes or unused properties. The number of farms has also grown drastically — from just over 3,000 in 2007 to almost 8,000 in 2011, according to figures from the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers.

On average, a farm with 1,000 plants can generate up to $750,000 a year, and obviously free labour widens the profit margins. The gangs target Vietnamese back home — almost always poor and uneducated — using promises of a better life to lure them in.

“Traffickers rarely kidnap people; they lie and trick them,” Michael Brosowski, founder of the Hanoi-based anti-trafficking organisation Blue Dragon, wrote in an email. “They offer training or jobs, and people don’t understand how vulnerable they are to being abused so they go along with it under false pretenses.”

Last year 96 Vietnamese children were recognised as trafficking victims in the UK, a 41 percent increase from 2011, making Vietnam the top country of origin for trafficked minors in the UK, according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

While the number of children trafficked to the UK is comparatively small — UNICEF estimates 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide each year — the increasing number of Vietnamese is worrying. In some cases police have even raided unlocked farms where Vietnamese children tended to plants, too afraid to run away.

What is more troubling, however, is what happens to them after they are arrested.

“The problem is that people trafficked to the cannabis trade, mainly from Vietnam, get prosecuted for crimes they were compelled to do by their traffickers,” Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International told me.

But in June, the UK Court of Criminal Appeal set a precedent by quashing three cases involving Vietnamese children who were forced to work on cannabis farms.

“This judgment is a milestone in making sure that victims of trafficking are protected against criminalisation,” Klara Skrivankova from Anti-Slavery International said in a statement.

Yet police and NGOs are finding that even when trafficked children are identified as victims, they often run away from their foster families and back to their captors in an attempt to protect themselves or their families back in Vietnam.

But rescuing and returning these children to their homes benefits more than just their families.

“When a trafficked victim is returned home, an entire community is educated,” Brosowski from Blue Dragon wrote. “In central Vietnam, Blue Dragon has observed that once we conduct two rescues of children from a particular village, that village will almost certainly have no more trafficking.”

Cannabis in the UK

Weed is hugely popular around the globe. The United Nations estimates between 119 million and 224 million people use it worldwide. In England and Wales, 6.9 percent of adults aged 16 to 59 reported using it in 2011/12, according to a 2012 drug use survey from the Home Office. While that number has decreased steadily, from 9.5 percent in 1996, cannabis is still the most widely used drug. The second most popular is cocaine, at 2.2 percent.

In 2004, cannabis was demoted from a class B drug under the UK Misuse of Drugs Act to a class C, which carries a lesser sentence. It was reclassified back to class B again in 2009. Class B drugs carry a maximum penalty for supplying and distribution of 15 years imprisonment, while possession can result in two to five years in prison, according to DrugScope. But imprisonment for possession is rare and those who are caught usually get a warning or fine.

A recent poll by market research company Ipsos Mori found that 53 percent of the British public supports the legalisation of cannabis.

See more about human trafficking on AsiaLIFE