According to Swati Pande, people in Britain should be paying as much attention to where the cannabis they smoke at festivals and parties comes from as they do to the provenance of the chicken they eat.
“Many people in the UK are really concerned about what feed goes into chickens and if the chicken they eat is really organic,” says Pande, who works for the Child Trafficking Advice Centre, set up by Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). “But they have no idea where their cannabis has come from. It might be blood cannabis they are smoking. They need to understand this.”
As the UK government begins to rehouse some of the hundreds of unaccompanied minors living in a controversial French migrant camp known as “the Jungle”, the NSPCC says the plight of scores of Vietnamese children who are being hidden in the camp – before being taken to the UK to work for organized criminal networks as slaves – is being ignored.
The Jungle, which has a population of 7,000 migrants – including an estimated 1,300 unaccompanied children – has been used for years, the charity says, as a secret holding station to hide Vietnamese children before they are smuggled across the English Channel to the UK. After making that journey they are forced to work in so-called “cannabis farms” — in reality, squalid inner-city houses — and also regularly subjected to sexual abuse. Addressing this situation, says Pande, is “currently just not a priority.”
Pande says that in early 2016 volunteer workers in Calais reported to her team that they had seen a small annex camp, slightly away from the main Jungle encampment, where Vietnamese children were being kept. “What they saw fits with what the young Vietnamese we have worked with have told us over the years, about how they were kept in a jungle-type situation before crossing to the UK,” she says. “There is a very clear pattern to this and it is part of an incredibly well organized criminal supply chain.”
The NSPCC formed the Child Trafficking Advice Centre in 2007 and has since worked on 1,600 cases referred to it by various UK government and NGO bodies. “Consistently about 20% of these have been Vietnamese children,” says Pande.
“In the last year we have had 90 [trafficked Vietnamese children] referred to us.” Typically, the children leave Vietnam by plane for China or Russia, she says. They then begin an arduous land route to Calais that can take weeks. There they wait in the annex camp to be smuggled, normally aboard trucks, to the UK, where they are typically forced to work in “cannabis cultivation, sometimes opportunistic sexual exploitation or sexual abuse, and domestic servitude.”
A recent child trafficking report published in October 2016 by another charity, the Salvation Army, describes the experience of one such Vietnamese teenager referred to as “T”. His parents died before he was 11 and he was taken by a local convent.
A gang, pursuing family debt that had arisen because of medical bills, kidnapped him, kept him in chains and cut off one of his fingers, which was sent to the convent as a warning to hand over the money that had been left to him.
“There is a very clear pattern to this; it is part of an incredibly well organized criminal supply chain”
He was then smuggled to the UK by Chinese people-traffickers in the back of a lorry. Forced to grow cannabis plants, he was so maltreated and ill-fed that he was forced to eat cannabis for food. He was ultimately rescued during a police raid and placed in foster care – only to be later tricked by a Vietnamese man he met in a shopping center who persuaded him to go home with him. This man forced T into domestic servitude, beating him and locking him up at night, before selling him on to a group that forced him to work in a warehouse.
At the age of 18, T escaped, having gained his captors’ trust. They allowed him out of the warehouse to wash their cars and he fled, to a police station. In 2013, he was given a place on the UK government’s slave rehabilitation scheme, which included being given shelter in a Salvation Army safe house several hours away from where he had been found.
According to staff, however, he remained anxious about meeting his traffickers again and one day left the safe house for a shopping trip and failed to return. He has not been seen since.
According to human trafficking data released by the UK’s National Crime Agency, criminal cases involving trafficked Vietnamese children are exceeded in numbers only by cases from Slovakia.
However, while the Slovakian cases involve trafficked children being exploited for benefits claims, the vast majority of the Vietnamese cases investigated by the NCA involve cannabis. Of the 49 potential Vietnamese trafficking victims that the NCA looked at in 2014, 47 were exploited for cannabis cultivation and of these, more than 50% were children.
“These children’s home situations vary,” says Pande. “Sometimes they may have been street sleepers in Vietnam, or their families may have been tricked into sending them on a student exchange. What is consistent is that they don’t know what they are getting into.
“We have been seeing this since we started the unit eight years ago and, ever since, we have been asking ‘why are so many Vietnamese being brought to the UK?’ There are enough poor venerable kids in English cities, so why bring more from Southeast Asia? We just don’t know the answer.
“What we do know is that once they are here it is a messy situation and it is not being dealt with because it is a crime that does not fit an existing mold. Generally speaking, the Vietnamese community in the UK is seen as quiet, law-abiding, hard working — they are seen by many as people that run good restaurants. And in law enforcement terms they are just not part of the main agenda.”
Unfortunately the traffickers feeding British demand for cannabis appear far more determined to pursue theirs.