26 Aug Beaten. Raped. Starved. The Teenage ‘Ghosts’ Behind British Cannabis Trade

SundayTimes 250813By George Arbuthnott, The Sunday Times, 25th August 2013

Binh is small for his age, handsome and courteous, but his face is almost expressionless. He is wearing baggy jeans and a black cap which he pulls down over his eyes.

Like most 16-year-old boys, he fiddles constantly with his smartphone. Three years ago, this was the tool the men who trafficked him from his home in north Vietnam used to control his every movement.

Along with regular beatings, and the threats of more serious violence against him and his family, his phone bound him into slavery just as securely as a ball and chain. He is relatively safe now, living with specially trained foster parents, but he still holds the phone as if it is a bomb about to go off.

Last week The Sunday Times launched a campaign to raise awareness of modern-day slavery in Britain. We revealed that many of the manicurists working in Vietnamese nail bars across the country are victims of human trafficking. Some are forced into bonded labour, others into prostitution, to pay back money that has been “borrowed” from the traffickers for their passage.

Not only are nail bars thriving, but they are frequently used to launder money raised by suburban cannabis farms, like the one Binh ended up working in.

Binh’s story is heartbreaking but the NSPCC’s Child Trafficking Advice Centre, which advised on his case, worked with 132 trafficked children last year, 37 of them Vietnamese.

Binh’s father died in an accident when he was four and his mother began to borrow small sums from loan sharks to make ends meet. Later, these men told her they knew agents who would help the then 13-year-old Binh travel to Britain, where he would earn enough money to clear the family’s debts.

Binh left with a group of other teenagers, flying to the Czech Republic, then hiding, cold and hungry, in lorries the rest of the way to England.

When discovered during a police raid two years ago Binh had been imprisoned in a house in the north with padlocked shutters. He had been left alone 24 hours a day, tending cannabis plants.

It is estimated that 75% of the cannabis consumed in the UK is home-grown skunk (Evening Standard) It is estimated that 75% of the cannabis consumed in the UK is home-grown skunk (Evening Standard)

Last week he pulled a face and said: “The smell! Awful!” He yawned and fidgeted, unable or unwilling to remember any more until he was asked about his mother, at home in Haiphong, whom his captors had threatened to maim. Then his composure faltered, and the tears began to fall.

During the 1980s, about 70% of cannabis consumed in Britain was imported from Lebanon with the rest from the Far East and the Caribbean.

The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit estimates that today 75% of the cannabis is home-grown skunk, the street name for strong cannabis. It is a big market. Cannabis is by far the most popular illegal drug in Britain. According to the unit, up to 2.7m users consume 1,000 tons a year, worth up to £5.9bn.

In the past two years, police have discovered 7,865 farms, more than double the number detected in 2007 and 2008.

The connection with nail bars is well established. PC Janet Humphrey, of Suffolk police, describes an intelligence trail linking cannabis factories in Felixstowe with a string of beauty parlours. A Vietnamese boy aged 14 who had been found in a lorry with four men in Maidstone and taken into care by Kent social services disappeared almost immediately and surfaced months later in a nail bar in Bury St Edmunds.

The same boy was linked to a cannabis factory in a suburban house in Essex where another man from the lorry had been murdered. The trail, says Humphrey, criss-crosses the UK, linking cannabis farms and beauty parlours from Kent to North Yorkshire. It is clear that criminal gangs are able to launder the profits of cannabis factories through apparently legitimate beauty businesses.

In 2010, the government asked two criminologists, Dr Daniel Silverstone and Professor Stephen Savage, to investigate the explosion in the number of Vietnamese cannabis farms in Britain. Their report, which draws on more than 60 interviews with police and Vietnamese illegal immigrants, describes how the cash proceeds are being used in part to finance the running of nail bars and restaurants.

A joint report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the British embassy in Hanoi also found that Vietnamese networks were laundering cannabis profits through nail bars. The cash is often taken out of the country in luggage to be reinvested in Vietnam.

Vietnamese drug barons have taken such a firm grip on the industry that the charity DrugScope believes they now control about two-thirds of Britain’s cannabis trade. Andrew Wallis, chief executive of the charity Unseen, says that in Bristol and the southeast, Romanian and Abanian gangs are also moving in.

The market is kept buoyant by a silent army of slaves, mainly children from the poorest areas of northern Vietnam and southern China, many barely into their teens.

They are lured to Britain by the promise that they will earn enough money to send home to their families. In reality, by the time they get here via a well-worn route through Russia, then overland through Europe, they have been so brutalised, mentally and physically, that when they arrive at innocuous-looking rented houses in Birmingham and Manchester, their traffickers barely need to lock the doors.

Girls are often raped en route. Boys are beaten and starved. As Binh pointed out, in such circumstances, all hope of escape quickly dies.

“When you’re told your mum will die, your little sister will have her hands cut off, you do as you’re told, and you try not to think about tomorrow,” he said.

Neighbours could certainly be forgiven for passing these properties without giving them a second glance. The only clue to the misery inside is often that curtains remain drawn.

However, the trade is under intense scrutiny at the Home Office, where a new law is being drafted to ensure that modern slave-masters who smuggle people into Britain and force them to work face harsher prison sentences.

The Modern Slavery Bill will also see them banned from running businesses. Theresa May, the home secretary, writes in the Comment section: “The harsh reality is that in 2013 there are people in this country who are being forced to exist in appalling conditions . . . The criminals who exploit, bully and threaten them often inflict violence mercilessly. They are very careful to ensure that their victims have no rights at all. Those victims are, too all intents and purposes, slaves.”

The first concern of the authorities must be to free them, she says. “But in the long term, the only way to minimise the number of victims is to maximise the number of modern-day slave-drivers that we convict and imprison.”

The initiative has been welcomed by MPs and campaigners as the first concerted move against the slave trade since William Wilberforce’s Abolition of Slavery Bill became law in 1833.

In the meantime, a desperate situation continues to worsen. The latest figures from the UK Human Trafficking Centre, a multi-agency body led by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, suggest that 69 victims trafficked for cannabis cultivation were formally identified in 2012. Of these 66 were Vietnamese, of whom 53 were children. Yet the centre concedes that since trafficking is a largely hidden crime, the figures are likely to be wildly off the mark.

Andy Desmond, a detective with Scotland Yard’s human exploitation and organised crime squad until he retired last year, said that as each factory had a “gardener”, usually a child aged between 14 and 18, the true number of victims was in the thousands.

According to Desmond, local police mindful of their immigration targets often do not recognise these teenage gardeners as victims, let alone unaccompanied minors. “The drug squads are all about leather jackets, rolling over bonnets, kicking in doors,” he said. “Then they find a young person and they don’t know what the appropriate response is.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers is reviewing guidance for officers and prosecutors so that the victims are identified as such and given the support they need.

Cannabis gardeners — or “ghosts”, as they are called — usually work in total isolation, without pay or access to the outside world. Their masters, frequently second-generation Vietnamese nationals with British passports, nearly always evade prosecution.

Barnardo’s has worked with 50 trafficked children this year, many of them Vietnamese. Staff say they are terrified and traumatised, but are bound with invisible chains to their masters.

Lynne Chitty, the charity’s children’s service manager, said those placed in care or B&Bs without a comprehensive safety plan were gone as soon as the door was closed. “Can you promise my family at home won’t be hurt?” one frantic teenage girl asked her. She already knew the answer. “Well then, I must go.”

Ban Li Va, 22, spoke to The Sunday Times after an official at the British embassy in Hanoi put us in touch. He was reluctant to talk but decided that the importance of telling his story outweighed his fears of reprisal.

Ban grew up in one of Vietnam’s poorest regions. When he could not find work a family friend said he knew some men who knew how to get rich quickly. “They promised many things — I thought life in Britain would be beautiful,” Ban said. He agreed to pay 500m dong (£15,500) for his journey to Britain — a huge sum in a country where the average income is less than £4 a day. His family took out a bank loan, certain that Ban would soon pay it back.

“We were told that after one year working in the UK, I’d earn enough money to pay off my debt and feed my relatives.”

Ban boarded a flight to Russia and from there was taken by lorry through eastern Europe and on to France along with eight others, a journey that took nearly four months.

After crossing the Channel by ferry, he was driven to a house on the outskirts of a town in northern England, locked in and threatened with violence if he tried to escape.

Ban’s job was to work on the cannabis farm inside. The stench of the plants filled the building, and tending to them under powerful lamps was exhausting and lonely.

“My one hope was that I could bring my family a bright future, but they never paid me any money,” he said. When police burst through the door months later, Ban was arrested. He was sentenced to six months in prison. “The police and court treated me like a criminal, despite me telling them I was a victim,” he said.

Ban said the police had never found the farm’s owner and when he was deported to his home town last year his family was struggling. A £1,500 resettlement grant provided by the British government was enough to cover only some interest payments. Ban still owes his debt to the bank which the whole family, already on the breadline, must help pay back.

Anthony Steen, a former Tory MP who chairs the Human Trafficking Foundation, wants to see Britain becoming hostile to traffickers, with all victims adequately supported to return home.

At present, almost the reverse is true. Both police and non-governmental organisations admit the traffickers are one step ahead. Frequently, it is just the teenage gardeners who are charged or taken into care.

In June this year, the Court of Appeal considered the cases of three child victims of trafficking, who had been arrested and convicted of drug offences.

In a landmark ruling, all the children had their convictions quashed. Their barrister, Parosha Chandran, said that even the legal representatives of some children were failing to recognise their plight.

One victims, aged 17, had been sentenced to two years in a young offenders’ institution after being found tending cannabis plants in Harrow, northwest London. Traffickers had hauled him from the care of Kent county council two years earlier. Another child, aged 15, told police he had come to England in a freezer container.

The third child, aged 16, was seen being taken by a group of men from a house in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, last March with his hands bound. Police found it filled with cannabis plants. The boy was barefoot nearby. He was sentenced to eight months’ detention.

Two Vietnamese child victims represented by Chandran in similar appeals disappeared before their cases could be heard. Chitty, of Barnardo’s, says every time that a trafficked child disappears, it feels to her like a death: “We lost 120 last year. It’s such a dangerous underworld, even if they’re still alive, we will never, ever find them.”

Names have been changed. Additional reporting: Caroline Scott.