|Cannabis recovered after a series of police raids in the north west of England. Photo – Lancashire Police.|
By Paul Kennedy
Criminal gangs from Việt Nam are running a vast network of illegal cannabis farms across the United Kingdom, with many trafficking unsuspecting children into Britain to carry out the dirty work.
ECPAT UK, one of the UK’s leading children’s rights organisations, says there has been a huge rise in the number of farms in recent years, with many using youngsters from Việt Nam as ‘gardeners’ to work in dangerous conditions.
In the past, cannabis was smuggled into the United Kingdom from mainland Europe but because the risks were too high, most is now cultivated in the UK.
And officials say it is Vietnamese gangs who are controlling the supply.
ECPAT’s work has uncovered horror stories of children trafficked from Việt Nam being beaten and threatened with death if they refuse to do as they are told.
Many are also arrested during police raids, and end up in prison because they are too scared to tell officers who they are working for.
Last month, 16 Vietnamese nationals were jailed for a total of more than 35 years after police smashed a drugs ring operating in the north west of England.
The ringleader, 28-year-old Jack Nguyễn, was sentenced to seven years and four months after pleading guilty to producing and supplying cannabis and also money laundering.
|Vietnamese gang boss Jack Nguyễn, 28, who was jailed for seven years and four months in the United Kingdom for producing and supplying cannabis as well as money laundering. Photo – Lancashire Police.|
Detectives even recovered a video from the mobile telephone of one of those convicted showing a baby sat on his mother’s knee playing with a huge amount of cash.
But despite seizing cannabis worth trillions of đồng, many feel this is just the tip of the iceberg, because of the high profits these farms yield.
“Vietnamese ‘farmers’ has been an issue in Great Britain for many years,” Detective Sergeant Stu Peall from Lancashire Police told Việt Nam News.
“The plan of this Operation was instead of just charging the person inside the address was to go after the hierarchy of the group.
“The reason is they are clearly the controllers and that is the only way to try and prevent and pursue. Just taking out individual ‘farmers’ does not solve the problem and this is the best way we saw fit in targeting a well-organised Vietnamese crime group.”
The gangs travel across mainland Europe to get to the UK and choose areas with low-cost housing to create sophisticated drug production lines.
In this case, police said the criminals were posing as young couples with children and using fake documents to dupe landlords into renting properties believing they were legitimate families.
But once they move into the house, it is fitted with hydroponic growing systems with high-powered lights to produce cannabis at a rapid rate.
DS Peall added: “Of the people traced in this operation of Vietnamese descent – 90 per cent were illegal immigrants.
“All will state they travelled through Russia and then into the UK. Borders will do the best they can but as we all know the demand is great and they are doing the best they can with stretched resources.
“Why the North West of England? Housing is much cheaper than compared to the majority of England. So in terms of profit it makes sense to put farms in houses that cost less.
“This group was experienced and sophisticated. The money that was being taken was going back to Việt Nam by corrupt means which is still under investigation.
According to the latest statistics released by the National Crime Agency, the second highest nationality submitted to the National Referral Mechanism in 2017 was Vietnamese.
Of the 739 people in total, 362 were children.
The adults submitted were forced to carrying out labour work (254), sex exploitation (73) and in two cases, had their organs harvested for cash.
From the Vietnamese children submitted most were exploited through labour (175), sexual exploitation (34) and domestic servitude (18).
Although police say many criminal gangs cultivating cannabis in the UK are Vietnamese, other nationalities are involved in the illegal scam, including Eastern Europeans and locals.
Despite these farms running behind closed doors, the UK is, according to a report issued in 2016 by the INCBmarijuana for medical and scientific use.
Two years ago, almost half of all legally produced cannabis in the world was grown in the UK. — VNS
Debbie Beadle is Director of Programmes at ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking) which supports children all over the world to uphold their rights and live a life free from abuse and exploitation. Ms Beadle talks to Viet Nam News about the work they do to help Vietnamese children exploited in the United Kingdom
What is your organisation seeing in terms of people heading to Britain from Việt Nam?
We are currently undertaking a cross-border mapping project looking at the journeys being made by vulnerable migrants from Viet Nam, as well as the risks they face on these journeys. We are finding that Vietnamese people are moving primarily from Viet Nam into Russia and then across Europe. Some are settling in other EU countries and a lot are coming to the UK. We’re seeing evidence that these children and adults are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation en route, including trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labour and criminal exploitation.
Is there a pattern? Why are they coming and what are they doing here?
In the UK, we see that a lot of Vietnamese children are being exploited for cannabis cultivation, forced labour and sexual exploitation. These children are being controlled and exploited by organised criminal networks.
What is ‘family debt’? Can you explain how this works and the impact it has on lives of those trafficked?
In these cases, where the child’s family are told that they are paying for the child to have better opportunities overseas, the child’s traffickers will say that the family owe them a huge amount of money – up to 30k – to pay for the child’s journey. This debt then often increases at the whim of the traffickers, and it is impossible for the child victim to pay it off.
Are those brought over on the whole naive? Or are there cases of people aware of what they would be doing on arrival in UK?
Many people will know that they are coming to Europe or the UK to work. They are hoping to send money back to their family. However their dreams are used as a way to take advantage of them, and the reality they find themselves is in a situation of exploitation and abuse. They are frequently forced into criminal activity, sexual exploitation and forced labour, and are not able to send money back to their families. They often suffer a lot of abuse.
Tell us about the work you do once a child is recovered?
ECPAT UK runs a youth programme which supports trafficked children to recover from their experiences. We ensure that each child has the support network they need to recover from trauma and rebuild their lives. We inform them of their rights, provide an environment of peer support, provide skills-building that enables them to enter education or employment and support them to be advocates for themselves and their peers. Young people enrolled in our youth programme have opportunities to steer ECPAT UK’s research, policy and campaigns to ensure that victims’ voices, views and opinions are at the heart of everything we do.
What are the children like emotionally when they come to you?
Many young people who come to us are extremely traumatised because of what they have been through. They are often very quiet and do not trust anyone. Unfortunately, the UK children’s service system can be very confusing and intimidating which can add to their trauma. If they are from countries like Viet Nam, they may also need immigration support and will be fearful of being sent back to a country where their traffickers could access them and harm them. These young people often need a lot of support for a long period of time until they can recover and rebuild their lives.
Hai’s story: A teenage boy whose dreams turned into a nightmare
Hai was 15 years old and living in a small village in Việt Nam when a man came to visit him offering work.
It was a dream come true.
Raised by his grandparents, Hai had struggled finding a job so he welcomed the opportunity to earn money.
His flights to the United Kingdom were paid for and he was told he would be able to send money home.
On the way to the airport another boy, Thắng, was collected and the two teenagers flew to the UK. But on arriving in Great Britain they realised things were not right, and they were forced to become ‘gardeners’ looking after cannabis plants for criminal gangs.
His story has been documented by ECPAT UK – a leading children’s rights organisation working to protect youngsters from child traffickers and transnational child exploitation.
Hai features in an animated educational video the ECPAT (Every Child Protected Against Traffickers) have produced to stop other youngsters falling into the same trap.
That video has been shown in rural communities in Việt Nam.
“I needed to go out and get a job but there wasn’t any work in our village,” Hai said in the short film.
“We thought he was so kind, but then when we arrived in the UK the man took us to a big house in a city and he told us we had to take care of his plants.
“He said we owe him money if we didn’t do it or if we run away he would kill us. My friend was crying all the time and we felt sick with the smell all the time. We were not allowed out on our own.
“The man and his friend never gave us any money. One day the police came and arrested us for growing drugs. I didn’t understand what was happening. That was the last time I saw my friend Thắng.”
ECPAT said in 2016 they identified 227 Vietnamese children living in the UK as potential victims of modern day slavery. They say Việt Nam is the top country for children being trafficked into the UK.
Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Campaigns, said: “In our experience, many vulnerable young people from Việt Nam are treated as criminals before they are seen as victims of modern slavery, which only re-traumatises them and makes it more difficult to gain their trust.
“We want this film to help inform frontline workers about the rights of child victims of trafficking, as well as to reach out to children in Việt Nam who may be at risk.”
*The story of Hai is a composition case study using information gathered from two or more Vietnamese child victims supported by ECPAT UK. After being entered into either the care system or the criminal justice system in the UK, the youngsters are referred to the ECPAT UK youth programme. It is here they are helped to regularise their status and access support needed to move on from their experiences of exploitation.
Log on here to view the video, The Secret Gardeners.
International co-operation in drug crime prevention and fighting
Việt Nam has engaged in many UN Conventions and signed a number of bilateral co-operation agreements on narcotics control with multiple countries in the region and beyond, while enhancing co-ordination with international organisations, especially the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol).
When contacted by Việt Nam News, the Department of Consular under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they had not been informed of the case in Lancashire and were seeking further information from the Vietnamese Embassy in London.
The Ministry of Public Security’s Drug Crime Investigation Police Department said while co-operation in drug crime prevention and fighting had been well established between Việt Nam and many other countries in the ASEAN region and countries like France, United States or Australia, there had been little co-operation between Việt Nam and the UK regarding this matter.