Our eye caught a reference in the recent Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Human Trafficking (IDMG) report to the use of trafficked and exploited labour in the cultivation of cannabis. This information really shouldn’t be a surprise – drugs and human trafficking have been long-established income generating activities for criminals, particularly organised crime networks. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre shows that trafficking for exploitation in cannabis farms is currently the largest trend for child trafficking in the UK. However, this trafficking trend seems relatively under-addressed by the media, and combined with the illegal status of cannabis, public awareness of this issue is relatively low. An ECPAT report on this issue noted the domination of the UK cannabis market by Vietnamese organised criminal networks and found evidence that children from South East Asia, particularly Vietnam, were being trafficked to work in the cultivation of cannabis. Indeed, the first case of a trafficked Vietnamese child for the purposes cannabis cultivation was found in 2003, which points to the fact that for nearly a decade, this engagement between Vietnamese criminals and trafficked labour (including children) for cannabis cultivation has existed and continues to grow.
A 2003 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that domestic cultivation of cannabis accounted for half of all cannabis consumed in England and Wales. A later report by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) found that ‘A total of 7,865 [cannabis farms] were identified in 2011/12 compared to 6,866 in 2009/10, an increase of 15 per cent.’ Further, the latter report found that in light of increased economic pressure and the ‘reduction in deal weights’ or the weight of the average street cannabis deal, there has been a rise in the purchase of cultivation equipment and arguably an increase in domestic cannabis growing operations.
So what are the hallmarks of a cannabis farm? The BBC, interviewing an ACPO representative, noted that the following are usually present: people renting accommodation and bringing in large amounts of equipment; the adaption of premises, by, say, creating ventilation systems; the absence of property inhabitants; the presence of a distinctive strong and sickly sweet smell; covered-up windows, both to keep out noisy neighbours and maintain the temperature; strong lighting (as plants need artificial light) and associated heat, the presence of condensation; and extreme electricity use, often gained through bypassing existing electricity meters. Conducive conditions for the use of trafficked labour.
Despite this potential hotbed of activity, the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group’s report ‘Wrong Kind of Victim?’ highlighted the problems faced by UK authorities in identifying those arrested at cannabis farms as potential victims of trafficking. Worryingly, the report documents the experiences of Vietnamese children and young people who were arrested and prosecuted for cultivation offences, despite trafficking indicators, such as in the method of their entry to the UK and in comments made by victims to police officers that the children needed to work to repay a debt. The fact that some of these children found during raids on cannabis farms subsequently went missing from local authority care was (and remains) a concern. The report stated:
The fact that Vietnamese children go missing from care is not itself clear evidence that they have been trafficked or that they rejoined criminals who intended to exploit them, but, when considered together with evidence about the circumstances in which children are smuggled into the UK and put to work cultivating cannabis, there is compelling evidence that they are not being given adequate protection by the UK authorities.
In this respect, a recent report by APCO, published two years after the ‘Wrong kind of Victim?’, shows some progress on the identification and protection of trafficking victims. The report commented that that attention should be paid to the potential presence of trafficked adults and children at cannabis farms; referring to the Council of Europe Convention and the child protection obligations upon police, ACPO emphasised the use of the ‘Safeguarding Children Guidance’, the need to undertake relevant assessment procedures. How this report has been implemented though is unclear.
The prosecution of victims for offences committed while being trafficked continues to be an issue. Although the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has issued relevant guidance, according to the IDMG, the guidance only comes into play when: ‘information has either been provided by the investigating officer, the suspect’s defence solicitor or an NGO, or when the prosecutor has advised the investigating officer to make further enquiries, and further information is provided’. Equally, the CPS Guidance only allows for a consideration of whether it is in the public interest to continue prosecution, rather than a more formal guarantee of immunity, which would mean victims could not be prosecuted. In our submission to the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service’s Consultation on Prosecuting Cases of Trafficking, we argued,
Criminalising victims of trafficking achieves very little and may have serious consequences: victims of trafficking will not to come forward and seek assistance if they believe they may be prosecuted. It also provides traffickers with an additional method of maintaining control over victims.
As the judgment by the Court of Appeal of 20th February 2012 in the case R v N and R v LE showed, a Vietnamese minor who had been arrested in a cannabis farm and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment saw his conviction confirmed even though a conclusive decision by the UKBA had identified him as a victim of trafficking. However, the initial custodial sentence was reduced from 20 to 12 months. The imprisonment of children for crimes which they were forced to commit as the result of being trafficked is a response which ignores the rights of the child.
The triggers which enable the CPS guidance to come into play are not wholly unreasonable, but they do ignore a number of problems. For example, the levels of fear faced by victims regarding the debt owed to their traffickers or the implications for their families in their country of origin. In the case of Vietnamese children, it was found that they were victims of debt bondage, with the debt secured to their relative’s land and ranging in value from £17,000 to £38,000. Similarly, it places the onus, perhaps disproportionally, on victims; instead, training for investigating officers should be improved to enable them to increase their own awareness and identification of cases of trafficking. These issues are particular pertinent when considering children, who may not know their rights, may need a guardian to advocate for them or may have problems proving their age or national origin/immigration status.
While the relationship between drug cultivation, organised crime and human trafficking is reasonably well-established globally, it seems to be that UK authorities have been slow to respond effectively. Change does seem to be happening though. The Council of Europe’s evaluation of the UK’s response to trafficking by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings comments that:
The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] is also working with the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam to improve evidence gathering and expediting enquiries with a view to assisting prosecutions involving THB [trafficking in human beings] into the UK, including of Vietnamese youths trafficked to work in cannabis farms.
Equally positive was the note that NGOs had been involved in police operations relating to cannabis farms to assist in the identification of victims. It is hoped that this takes into account the difficulties faced by children in proving their age and the associated vulnerabilities this process brings.
Human trafficking and the cultivation of illegal substances is a match made in heaven for criminal gangs, for example, through the use of transnational networks. On the simplest level, the absence of wages within the product’s supply chain increases profits, especially when combined with the use of debt bondage. There is a need for Government to engage more strategically with this crime and improve the levels of protection offered to all trafficking victims, but particularly the rights and protections required for child victims.