Slavery has a ‘shocking presence in modern Britain’, says Theresa May. But the hundreds of slave children locked inside Britain’s prohibition ‘skunk farms’ still go unseen and unheard.
“It is all around us, hidden in plain sight,” writes the Home Secretary in The Sunday Telegraph. “It is walking our streets, supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind the curtains in an ordinary street: slavery.
“Something most of us thought consigned to history books, belonging to a different century, is a shameful and shocking presence in modern Britain.”
Moving words. But given Theresa May’s record this rhetoric is doublethink. No mention of the hundreds of child victims of trafficking in the UK. No mention of ‘cannabis farms’, which continue to be a primary reason these children, most of them from Vietnam, are smuggled here and enslaved—this according to CEOP, the government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. As she promotes her new Modern Slavery Bill and squirms to avoid even acknowledging the root causes of the problem, the numbers of enslaved Vietnamese teenagers on British shores continue to grow—Home Office figures suggest at around 12% per year.
According to CEOP, there are 549 child trafficking victims in the UK. The real numbers are likely much higher. The majority of these kids are Vietnamese and Chinese teenagers, some as young as 13, who have been trafficked into the country and forced to work on ‘skunk farms’ as bonded slaves. Trapped by unpayable debt, locked into houses from the outside, they live under the constant threat of violence—both to them and to their families back home. And when the violence comes, be it in a dark wood outside town or the sound-proofed backroom of a suburban property, it is merciless. Several of these kids are known to have been murdered, here in the UK—at least six as of 2011, according to Andy Baker of SOCA, The Serious Organised Crime Agency.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the Home Secretary makes no mention of them in her piece on the shame of Britain’s modern day slavery for The Sunday Telegraph. After all, these abused and murdered youngsters are the price of continuing with cannabis prohibition in the UK.
But Britain’s new grassroots cannabis reformers can’t stay silent on this issue. And there is a strong argument that the movement will only put the necessary fear and urgency into the minds of those in authority when it takes up this particular fight. Child slavery is a powerful and emotive issue in the battle for UK cannabis reform—it has the moral and emotional force to change minds and change laws.
Norman Baker, the new ‘drugs minister’ has said that legalisation should be “considered”. Direct action protests themed around this issue could really give him and the Home Office something to think about.
Everyone loves to travel, don’t they? Vietnam’s Nghe An Province looks like a great place for it: sinuous limestone mountains, mist-covered fields and temples….
Take a motorbike onto Route 7, head west from the port city of Vinh, and you can drive inland through the rice padi all the way to the Annamite Range and the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On the way out there’s Ho Chi Minh’s birthplace, and at Quyet peak you can look back over Vinh city. By 1975, the bombs had left just two buildings standing. Now, over the skeleton of an East German street plan, factories and tower blocks have regrown….
But long perspectives like these for the most part belong to tourists and retirees—people with time on their hands, and money. Jump on a motorbike in Nghe An Province if you are somebody who actually lives there—which is to say if you are poor, Vietnamese, and most likely young—and an absent moment’s reflection can come at a heavy price. Like when Trang’s brother took the family scooter out, got into an accident, and broke his leg. A very different fate awaited him and his family from the backpacker trail’s bruised and confused ‘Gap Year’ students.
“The bills were huge and got my family into a lot of debt,” Trang explained to Mei-ling Mcnamara for her Al Jazeera documentary, Children of the Cannabis Trade. “So my parents had to borrow money from an agency to pay it off. My family had to pay $2500 first and then I had to come here to work for the people to continue paying for the rest. I had no idea what I was going to do here and how life would be.” On the pretense that he would travel to the UK for a few months of legal work, the debt had been used to lock Trang’s family into what Mcnamara calls “a chain of exploitation that stretches from the South China Sea to the English Channel.” The chain would drag their son 6000 miles across Asia, on a broadly similar northwest route to a ‘Gap Year’ flight back home from Hanoi or Bangkok. Just shy of his sixteenth birthday the Vietnamese boy could look forward not to fifteen hours of inflight entertainment and smiling service, but the inside of vehicle chassis, transport containers, and taped-up bin bags.
What follows is a deeper look beyond Mcnamara’s must-watch documentary.
Into China, across southern Russia, the first leg can be done more or less legally, sometimes by plane or train. Then most likely a ‘waterhole’ in Moscow and a long wait while ‘entrance fees’ are paid and enough human cargo has accumulated for the next stretch. On the way rape and violence are not uncommon, and there may be brutal ‘personal inspections’ by Russian Customs officers dissatisfied with their bribe. A border crossing into Ukraine likely comes next, at night and on foot, with another wait in some anonymous flat until the trafficking networks take them smoothly through the green border into the first EU staging points. Four months in, through the Czech Republic or Germany, and children like Trang can have come as far as the English Channel. “When I arrived in France there were some Vietnamese that picked me up. They took me to some woods. Then they put me onto a lorry in a car park. I got onto it and it took me to England.” With a single coin placed in his hand, Trang phoned a number. An unknown man came to collect him and drove him north. Another week on, and he would be shut on the inside of a cannabis farm, as a debt slave.
Backlit against the milky white suburban curtains while he talks in Vietnamese, Trang plays with the Buddhist bracelet of wooden mala beads around his wrist. The memories seem too much for him. “It was the first time I was alone in a big house. I was so scared. I didn’t know what the plants were. There were lights everywhere.” Humming ballasts, cables, fans, blacked out windows and stale unventilated air would be normal here—and concealed ten inch skewers cemented into window sills, or wired front doors.
Trang—not his real name—is just one of many hundreds of Asian children to have been enslaved inside Britain’s cannabis factories. They are still there today. Disorientated and utterly alone, some as young as thirteen, they are ideal labour for the black market that has been created by prohibiting cannabis production. “Vietnamese children now make up the largest group of children being trafficked into the UK, primarily for exploitation in the cultivation of cannabis. According to the UK government’s CEOP organisation (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre), nearly 300 children per year are trafficked into the country—and nearly a quarter can end up on cannabis farms.” The story of another boy, fifteen year old Hai can be read here.
“Defenseless, obedient and invisible,” in Mcnamara’s words, they arrived unseen in the decade or so around the turn of the millennium, as ‘skunk’—the term preferred by politicians and the media for modern hybrid cannabis—took the UK by storm. Vietnamese trafficking networks quickly came to dominate the black market and built up a transnational system founded on locking the easily exploitable children of peasant families—most of them from Nghe An Province—into debt bondage. Trapped in limbo as illegal immigrants, with the police and courts on one side, and gangs on the other, these are Britain’s slave children. They don’t grow cane, or cotton. They grow cannabis—here, in the 21st century, in the UK.
The debts, like the children and their families, remain unpaid. It is a profitable system, clearly. If you believe Al Jazeera’s figures, it costs around $30,000 to set up a grow, which can be recouped within about four months. A fully functioning grow house is said to make anything from $500,000 to $1 million a year—enough in a good year, in other words, to pay off a mortgage and buy another house. But, lucrative as it may be, the system still demands blood and acts of extreme violence, if only in the name of efficiency. For one thing, while every waking moment is coloured by the threats that hang over them and their families back home, there are always the children that fight back. Police investigating suspected trafficking cases are, for example, advised to scrutinize interviewees for signs of forceful restraint. And inevitably grows will be ripped off, exposed, or lost. Cannabis is one of man’s oldest crops and is host to numerous diseases—botrytis, mites, aphids, fungi—some of which can wipe out a field in a matter of days. There are other hazards like electrical failures and fires. “We know of six murders” explained Andy Baker, then deputy director of SOCA. “And we also know there is a message to the other Vietnamese, […] that the perpetrators of the violence and the murders make sure that the violence is extreme—so there’s a message going back home to their loved ones and families […] Because, you see, it’s a fairly small, tight community from where they hail.”
Mei-ling Mcnamara travelled to Nghe An to track down Trang’s relatives for the second part of her documentary. Entering on a tourist visa after being refused permission to film, she headed south from Hanoi into the province’s backwaters and numberless isolated villages. Traffickers make this same journey for gà (“poultry”), or thóc (“a grain of rice”), meaning ‘peasants’—the same slang being used for low status rural Vietnamese in kitchens and factories in their destination countries. Middle men, frequently working with state-affiliated labour agencies, seek out vulnerable households, often using trusted friends or relatives to reach an agreement with the target family, in return for a cut. Searching through rural Nghe An, Mcnamara was left to conclude that Trang’s family had already disappeared. Elsewhere a man by the name of Tran was keen to tell his young brother’s story. In his case he had paid around $30,000, he said (the most vulnerable always pay more.) “We paid in three parts. The first was a deposit. The second was when he got on the ferry from France to England. When he got to England he had to pay to work off the rest. Since then, I haven’t heard from him.” The desperation in his voice became all too clear: “I inquired about my brother from the agents who had arranged for him to work abroad. They say “He is busy and can’t call.” Shabeer Qureshi, a criminal lawyer based in Birmingham, explains: “they’re usually from families that have very little contact with the outside world, so they wouldn’t know the difference between the United Kingdom, France, America, or whatever. Once they get to this end, that’s when the threats would start; that you’ve got to do what we’re telling you. But they’re now stuck in the system.”
Yet, explains Mcnamara, “To date no one has been prosecuted in Vietnam for labour trafficking. The export labour market in Vietnam is big business, each year over 100,000 of its citizens leave the country to make their fortunes overseas.” These migrant workers send back an annual $2 billion in remittances, lifeblood for the economy, and a figure which can, along with endemic corruption, explain the blind-eye Vietnam’s government has turned to systematic abuses by labour agencies.
DVD factories, benefit fraud, begging, stealing—trafficking of Vietnamese children into the UK is for various forms of organised crime, but the biggest draw remains the verdant land of opportunity offered up by cannabis prohibition. Vietnamese and southern Chinese networks dominate, but primarily not the old, traditional Asian crime gangs, with their names, closed hierarchies, and sentimental attachment to turf. Instead of the Triads, ‘tongs’ or jao phro, the modern diaspora networks are nameless and opportunistic, slick operations emerging around criminal business opportunities on an ad hoc basis: “They act like, and view themselves as, opportunistic business people rather than violent gangsters,” writes Miroslav Nožina. “Very often, a nuclear or an extended family initiate an operation in response to a new opportunity, and people from the same family, village or at least the same ethnic group who are living in source, transit, and destination countries are recruited to participate after the criminal operation is successfully carried out.” Flexible networks such as these, not the traditional gangs, have in recent years come to dominate Asian transnational crime. All but untouched at the top of this game are the bac (‘uncles’) sitting on wide profit margins that—again, thanks to child slave labour—can be enjoyed largely beyond the reach of the law. A rung or two down are their bao doi—the hitmen—and all are backed by the weight of a prohibition economy.
But British authorities insist they are up to the task. “We’ve been very successful dealing with the people that traffic,” SOCA’s Andy Baker asserts, “We work closely with the Vietnamese authorities in sharing information, whereby we have exposed to them what we know. They are dealing locally with the travel agents, which I think is too soft a word for these organised criminals that really exploit. […] Now that dents them; that does hurt, especially when you take away their assets; especially when you take away their drugs; especially when you take away their livelihood.” There are other measures, like a public service film funded by British authorities and broadcast across Vietnam “to highlight the violent realities of cannabis cultivation.” “The UK and Northern Ireland is an island country in the northwest of Europe” the voiceover runs, as we zoom in on a pixilated map. “It has a mild ocean climate and is covered with fog for most of the year. This nation is also known as ‘The Foggy Land’.” Then come graphics of skewer traps and wired front doors.
Meanwhile the US, with its 2011 Trafficking in Persons report, has placed Vietnam on the Tier 2 watchlist, a step closer to sanctions if there is no change. “The government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” writes the State Department, “it did not show progress in criminally punishing labour trafficking offenders and protecting victims of labor trafficking.”
‘The elimination of trafficking’ is a notion, nothing more, as the State Department is surely aware. And the rhetoric is perhaps a little ironic, if it is remembered what lengths the West went to after America’s comprehensive defeat in 1975 in order to prize open Vietnam’s communist command economy. Arguably it is here, with the fracture and near collapse of social welfare in post-war Vietnam, that the story of Vietnamese trafficking gangs and child slaves on British ‘skunk’ farms really begins.
It was as the ‘Boat People’ that the first wave of Vietnam’s post-war diaspora had entered the consciousness of the West, with the Fall of Saigon. Chaos and vengeful purges saw families that had fought alongside the American occupation—almost all from the south—take to the sea in fishing boats and makeshift rafts, which they aimed for the busy shipping lanes 240kms to the east. Adrift on the South China Sea, suffering hunger, thirst and disease, they were helpless in the face of Thai pirates who could steal all they had—largely gold—and rape and murder at leisure. UNHCR estimate that some 200,000 to 400,000 refugees lost their lives, most presumably through disease and starvation. Boats washed up on the coasts of the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia; others who were luckier crossed paths with freighters and were taken more than two thousand kilometers to Hong Kong, to refugee camps that only finally closed in May 2000. Some 850,000 refugees were to enter the USA. Another 137,000 souls came to Canada where in Toronto and Montreal they would start medical and legal practices, or enter the nascent high-tech industry in Ottowa, and so on. But the Vietnamese diaspora’s history with modern, black market cannabis production did not begin with these first southerners, though they were later to enter the story; instead it was with the second wave of migrants—fleeing chaos and economic collapse—that began around 1978. These communities came from the poor northern coast and from Haiphong, a large port city which, like all ports, was—and is—steeped in criminality.
“I’ve heard it said,” writes Michael L. Gray, “that in the 1980s, Vietnam was so desperate that government officials took some of the worst criminals and literally dropped them into boats and pushed them toward Hong Kong. In any case, the Hong Kong camp was a horrific place, with refugees left sitting for years in a legal limbo, under the control of gangs that ran rampant with no interference from outside authorities. If you didn’t have criminal tendencies when you went in, no one could blame you for having them when you left.”
In the late ’80s and ’90s these northern communities began to arrive in western Canada and Vancouver. There they encountered a thriving cannabis market, far larger and more lucrative than anything they had known at home. Before the war Vietnam already had cannabis in the northern highlands, among the Hmong people, who grew East Asian hemp strains, which have no real use as a drug, for their seeds and fibre. And from the mid ’60s an economy had sprung up to supply ‘marijuana’ to the young, mostly working class American men brought in to soldier on the frontline. But, for Vietnam, this was something new. While there had, historically, been traditional cultivation in the ethnically Khmer riparian lowland region of Chau Doc, bordering Cambodia, it was further north and west, along the Middle Mekong in Laos and Isan (Northeast Thailand), that there was a long-established tradition of producing and consuming high quality ganja: “some of the very finest in the world,” to quote Rob Clarke. It was the Thai soldiers and mercenaries fighting alongside Americans who had a reputation for prolific cannabis use, not the South Vietnamese. From the Thai and Lao, on the southern bases and on R&R in Thailand and Vientiane, the young grunts acquired words like ‘bong’—taken from Lao and Thai words for a length of bamboo pipe—and with it a taste for the herb that, on their return home, was to spread rapidly through the West. But, though there were reports of stashes of cannabis being found on the corpses of Viet Kong, the Vietnamese do not have a tradition of producing ganja, and certainly not when compared to the hippie communities then already dwelling in the hills of British Columbia.
Americans fleeing the war draft had begun arriving in western Canada in the late ’60s, and if many had first brought cannabis with them only as a subsistence crop, it wasn’t long before B.C. acquired its present reputation as a hotbed of commercial cannabis production. By the ’90s, the Hells Angels motorcycle club had control of exports to the US market, typically setting up big barn plantations out in rural areas to feed the huge demand for ‘B.C. Bud’. Notorious for their use of extreme violence against rivals, the Hells Angels nevertheless lost out rapidly to the industrious Vietnamese newcomers. With tight village networks and an outsider mentality, the immigrant gangs gladly exploited weakness and set about gaming the system in every way possible. The takeover came through a guerrilla strategy of moving back into the cities and towns, using multiple smaller scale grows in urban and suburban apartments and houses. These were easily restarted after a break-in or bust and better suited to taking advantage of a ‘soft’ stance adopted by the police. Initially at least, growers were given fines or suspended sentences, not jail, and so recruiting new arrivals proved more than easy in a business that had very little risk, and plenty of reward. A 2000 report from the DEA put the wholesale price of a pound of ‘B.C. Bud’ in Vancouver at $1500 – $2000, $3000 in California, and $8000 in New York. Turn of the century estimates place the industry worth to B.C. at $6.5 billion annually, second only to oil and gas. Profits were in turn used for other criminal enterprises, such as smuggling in heroin. By the end of the decade the Vietnamese had all but forced the Hells Angels out of Vancouver, earning them a reputation, in the words of one police officer, as “the most tenacious, extraordinarily focused group of criminals ever introduced into Canada.”
Backed by the weight of the best part of B.C.’s multi-billion dollar cannabis industry, the northern gangs were soon joined by prosperous, established southerners in real estate. The aggressive techniques perfected on the west coast led to a rapid expansion across Canada. In the opening years of the new millennium Vietnamese networks, again largely from the north, were simultaneously taking hold of cannabis production in the UK, already home to a diaspora population of around 35,000. British police recognized skunk farms and child trafficking as a serious problem around 2004, according to Mei-ling Mcnamara. Yet reports from the Canadian press are clear that at this point even Vancouver enforcement was struggling to fathom the operations. Eyebrows were being raised by the intricately interconnected crimes and the sophistication of the participants. A June 2005 report in the Vancouver Sun describes how, following a tip off from two banks, the Financial Institutions Commission began an investigation into “more than 900 mortgages brokered by Danh Van Nguyen, who had been running a company called Express Mortgages Ltd.” This led the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to pursue what appeared, in the words of Inspector Paul Nadeau, to be an “elaborate scheme to get mortgages by using false employment records and banking documents”.
“We did send investigators out to try and confirm ownership of some of these properties,” said the RCMP. “In a lot of the residences that we visited, we either found there was no one living there, the individual living there was not the individual on title, or the individual living there did not know they were on title.” The owner named on the paperwork would as often as not be found at another address and claim to have no idea the property was theirs. It began to emerge that applications were regularly being obtained through identity fraud, using new Vietnamese immigrants. When Nguyen’s files were seized back in March 2003, around 10% of the properties were confirmed to be grow-ops.
If 2004 is when the networks are said to have first come onto the radar of British authorities, Drugscope has them operating on a large scale in the UK for several years prior: “it was in 2000-1 that cannabis cultivation became more commercially organised and widespread following a wave of largely illegal immigration from north Vietnam”. Their 2012 report Weeding out the Dope continues:
“it wasn’t until the police launched a nationwide crack down on cannabis farmers called Operation Keymer in 2006 that some hint of the extent of the trade became apparent. The public were introduced to the idea of ordinary suburban houses being gutted and transformed into cannabis farms, where thousands of pounds worth of cannabis was being grown under powerful lighting using electricity stolen through a Heath Robinson tangle of wiring and junction boxes. Landlords and letting agents were warned about well-spoken Vietnamese businessmen looking to rent houses; utility companies about looking out for unusual spikes in energy consumption for residences; and neighbours, postmen and the like, about houses suddenly being blacked out; strange comings and goings—and weird smells.”
ACPO’s 2012 ‘Problem Profile’ for cannabis cultivation revealed that out of 49 UK forces only one—the City of London—failed to find a cannabis farm on its patch. In 2007 just over 3,000 operations were busted. This had leapt to almost 8,000 in 2011.
And the prohibition economy is becoming more complex. At a recent ACPO conference on cannabis cultivation in Newcastle one constabulary reported that for the last two years farms were no longer being booby trapped to protect them from break-ins by local rivals, “a sign of possible closer ties between cross-cultural gangs.” Most troubling of all, though, is surely the attitude of British authorities. The 2012 ACPO ‘Problem Profile’ on cannabis cultivation makes only one brief mention of the trafficking and enslavement of Asian children, this despite the fact that all available evidence points to child slaves being absolutely central to the gangs’ evasion strategies—and their role becoming increasingly important. “Police say that there is an emergence of the ‘multiple site model’,” explains Christine Beddoe of ECPAT UK, “whereby a large number of ‘gardeners’ are employed to manage small-scale factories across multiple residential areas, minimising the risk of detection. ECPAT UK is deeply concerned that this trend highlights traffickers’ continuing and increasing reliance on children to act as ‘gardeners’.”
Whether the police are indifferent, or just asleep on the job, it seems that either way the Vietnamese gangs are content to run rings around them. The clunky operational templates used in the National Intelligences Model (NIM) divide policing up into three levels: small local ‘skip and tip’ operations at Level 1; bigger operations with officers across the force area at Level 2; and Level 3 being operations at a national or international level. “Often there is no attempt to try to link a single location with others in the area or perhaps immediately outside the local Basic Command Unit (BCU),” Drugscope explains:
“[…] criminologist Daniel Silverstone in his 2010 article in Policing [argues that] when you are dealing with Vietnamese gangs, this model ‘runs into recurring problems because [they] tend to operate at all three levels simultaneously.’ For example, the ‘cannabis factories’ appear at Level 1, but they might be situated in various BCUs and they are managed by personnel who move themselves and the crop swiftly across forces as the market and evasion from local law enforcement dictates. Silverstone goes on to point out that Level 3 comes into play too, because proceeds are repatriated to Vietnam and the gardeners are trafficked in from overseas.”
There have been small improvements, here and there. January 2012 saw a new chief executive at the UK Border Agency (UKBA) put an immediate end to a so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to return unaccompanied children to France if they did not immediately apply for asylum. And in June 2013 the perverse and senseless habit of prosecuting and convicting children as criminals—sometimes criminal masterminds—may have come to an end when the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of three Vietnamese children, the judge noting that they were “victims of a “vile trade in people” and should not have been prosecuted.”
But the problem itself continues to grow. “In 2012 alone, according to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, there was a 12% increase in the number of children identified as potential victims of trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, a total of 549. Overall, the report identified 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking in the UK, up from 2,077 in 2011.”
Surprisingly, given its aparrent appetite for human misery, this a world that receives only scant and fragmented treatment in the UK media. ACPO, judging by their 2012 ‘Problem Profile’ and the remarks from Andy Bliss, are taking little or no interest. And the neglect from the British authorities, who have a duty of care, continues: “Large numbers of child victims of trafficking disappear from local authority care once discovered. In 2010, CEOP reported that Vietnamese children comprised the largest identified group going missing from local authority care (67%). These are children that feel pressured to return to situations of exploitation in order to pay off debt bonds to their traffickers who threaten them and their families.”
And so, in another of these absurd prohibition ironies, it may be that if there is any real pressure being put on the Vietnamese gangs it is coming not from the police but, unwittingly, from home hobby growers. Pottering around in lofts, cupboards and ‘grow ‘drobes’ it seems—if you believe a March 2012 article in The Economist—that Britain’s budding amateur horticulturalists have begun to dent the gangs’ trade. That in itself is a strong argument for permitting the home cultivation of a reasonable number of cannabis plants, as in American states like Colorado or Washington. But it is still the case that the strongest and most powerful reason for creating a common-sense regulated market for cannabis in the UK—‘full legalisation’—is seldom heard from Britain’s resurgent reform movement. In the background, NGOs like Ecpat UK and Anti-Slavery International have been quietly working away on this issue for years. But the noise that needs to begin now—the sound of direct action and protest in the streets—is yet to be heard.