Authorities struggle to get to grips with crime gangs trafficking young Vietnamese into the UK to work in slave-like conditions on massive indoor marijuana farms
A 16-year-old Vietnamese boy, as yet unidentified, was found cowering in a bush next to a freezing roadside in Scotland in the middle of January. The boy, who told police he had escaped from people smugglers by jumping out of a truck and then running for an hour across countryside in West Dunbartonshire, just to west of the city of Glasgow, said he was originally kidnapped in Vietnam and then trafficked to Russia and on into Europe.
On Christmas day, the dead body of a young Vietnamese man was found in a municipal park on the fringes of the English city of Derby. Police say the man – who they believe was publicly known as Han Lam but was actually a 17-year-old called Trung Thanh Hoang – may have died in a different place to where his body was found and say the death remains unexplained. A pathologist said high level of drugs were in his system at the time of his death.
Again in December, at a Coroners Court inquest into the death of another Vietnamese man, Minh Duc Hoang who may also be known as Tinh Van Tran, police reported how his body had been “dumped” on the side of a Welsh mountain and reeked of cannabis when it was found. A pathologist said he may have been electrocuted.
In February, at a vast marijuana farm found by police in a disused government nuclear bunker complex in the southern county of Wiltshire, four Vietnamese teenagers were found working in slave-like conditions. They said they were trafficked, as slaves, from Vietnam to the UK.
In early January, two more young Vietnamese men appeared in court charged with growing cannabis in a disused mill outside the northern city of Bradford. Police estimate that the cannabis seized at the site had a street value of more than US$1.2 million and say the two Vietnamese had been trafficked to the UK and locked in the building where they were forced to tend the so-called blood cannabis.
Dat Nguyan, 18, and Long Do, 28, pleaded not guilty at Bradford Crown Court to production of cannabis and were were remanded in custody until May.
And so the depressing list goes on.
There have been dozens more cases of Vietnamese cannabis production similar to the Bradford and Wiltshire cases in the UK over the past few years. The story nearly always goes like this. Police catch Vietnamese, in normally squalid cannabis “farms” and usually after a tip off by a member of the public, because of the smell or other unusual activity. These Vietnamese “gardeners”, as they have become known, are then sent to trial where they are convicted as criminals, jailed for a spell and then deported back to Vietnam. If the suspects are minors NGOs may well get involved and the young Vietnamese are taken into care, but often these children “disappear” again and, it is thought, they are put back to work to pay off debts their families, back in Vietnam, owe the people smugglers.
This is not a new story. Organised crime networks manage the large scale intercontinental distribution of both drugs and people and young Vietnamese have been trafficked by such gangs, into the UK and neighbouring Ireland, to work as indentured labourers for perhaps two decades.
The activity, where herbal cannabis is cultivated under intense artificial lights, was originally dominated by Chinese triad gangs who were first seen running such operations in Canada, where cannabis was grown for the huge and lucrative North American market in the late 1990s. It moved to the UK and Ireland when Canadian police became wise to the activity, with Ireland specifically being chosen by the triads because of its comparatively lax border security. Ireland’s then-booming economy (in the early 2000s) and its strategic geographical location made it an ideal jumping off point for the UK and the rest of the EU.
When the UK enacted the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, the national government proudly announced it had become the first country in Europe to specifically address slavery and trafficking in the 21st century. But how so? When looking at the cases mentioned, that have occurred in less than a three-month period – the unexplained deaths and the slavery of children to help produce illicit drugs for organised crime – it is hard to see any systematic government activity that is addressing the trafficking of Vietnamese into the UK.
A February 2017 UK government-commissioned report said that the UK’s Border Force is “missing thousands of victims of modern slavery at our borders” and has to date convicted only one trafficker. The report outlines how, out of the many thousands of potential victims, Border Force identified just 265 potential people at the border during six months of 2016 and only 57 of them were given official help.
This is backed up by data received via an Asia Times Freedom of Information request to the UK’s Home Office ministerial department, that revealed a mere 211 Vietnamese were detained by Immigration Enforcement officers between April 2015 and March 2016. This number is dwarfed by University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society data that shows the total number of people that entered UK immigration detention in 2015 was 32,400. Such data would seem to indicate that the only way a Vietnamese child could escape the clutches of his or her organised crime trafficker would be by jumping out of a speeding truck or getting arrested for growing cannabis.
Multiple requests by the Asia Times to the UK’s National Crime Agency (often dubbed Britain’s FBI) about the work its dedicated Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit is doing in combatting the trafficking of young Vietnamese into the UK went unanswered. As did requests to discuss this issue with the Vietnamese Embassy in London. Various UK police forces that have investigated individual cases either refused to speak to Asia Times, citing operational sensitivity, or did not return emails and telephone calls.
A High Court judge highlighted the problem during a trial against Vietnamese Bin Truong, who was convicted of cultivating 223 plants in the northern English city of Bolton in June 2016. At the trial, Judge Timothy Clayson said: “Frequently, if not always, cannabis farms are being looked after or cultivated by Vietnamese gardeners,” who are, said the judge “exposed to the highest risk of detection … They are clearly being directed by and operated by others who remain unseen and undetected.”
In summary the judge said to Truong, “It is clear, to a certain extent, you were vulnerable to being used by people who were operating this criminal enterprise.”