The United Kingdom's Vietnamese pot problem

By Calvin Godfrey - Khanh Hoan, Thanh Nien News

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A Thanh Nien News investigation has revealed that the UK government routinely jails trafficked Vietnamese cannabis growers and then offers them money to leave the country, despite numerous obligations to protect them from the criminal organizations to whom they believe they are indebted. 
Vietnamese returnees are not monitored by anyone and do not go to the police in Vietnam because they believe they have been smuggled, rather than trafficked. 
On March 14, Sen Dang, 34 and Nhi Nguy, 33 were brought before a British Magistrate.
Police found the two Vietnamese illegal migrants in a house in Portsmouth containing 200 marijuana plants; their fingerprints popped up in other grow houses throughout the country.
Neither man had a registered address or an form of identification.
“I have no doubt you were brought here under false pretenses,” Magistrate Richard Price said before handing down their punishment. “I have no doubt you were led into this slavery, for it is a form of slavery, to produce a controlled drug of class B, and I take all those matters into account, very much into account, as I do your desire to return to Vietnam as soon as possible.”
Following his empathetic preamble, the judge gave both men a year in prison.
Which seems odd.
When did Britain get into the habit of sending slaves to prison?
A month-long Thanh Nien News investigation has revealed that the UK’s justice system has widely acknowledged that poor Vietnamese adults and children have been trafficked into the UK illegally for years. 
Once there, they acknowledge, many are told they're in a crushing amount of debt and are either coerced or conned into growing the cannabis. Instead of tracking down the traffickers, the UK:
-Jails the trafficked Vietnamese adults and children it catches in cannabis houses despite numerous treaty obligations requiring it to treat such individuals as victims. A recent review of UK media accounts over the course of two years identified 142 likely trafficking victims who went to jail.
-Is rapidly cutting back on resources for identifying and protecting Vietnamese trafficking victims while offering them cash incentives to return to the very communities they were trafficked from.
-Takes an exceptionally short-sighted approach to trafficking returnees, many of whom believe they owe thousands of dollars to criminal syndicates who sometimes attack them, re-traffic them, or hold them in crippling debt. “There's a lot of threats,” said one senior UK embassy employee. “How often those threats are carried through I really couldn't say. I do believe that a lot of people come home to pressure.”
The cash crop
The UK used to get its pot elsewhere.
In 2005, ninety percent of the hash and marijuana consumed in the UK came from North Africa and the Middle East, according to Drugscope, a drug research organization focusing on drug policy reform.
In the next two years, domestic grow houses exploded and the British police have seized between half a million and 750,000 cannabis plants every year since 2007.
That same year, they raided more than 2,000 cannabis "farms" in England and Wales, two-thirds of which were estimated to be controlled by Vietnamese criminal groups, according to independent research conducted by baffled UK investigators.
All those raids only appear to have created more demand for indentured pot farmers.
Today the UK is a cannabis exporter and while no one knows what portion of that action remains controlled by Vietnamese gangs, desperate nha que migrants continue to make perfect ganja gardeners, even when a lot of them end up in jail.
Numbers about this sort of thing are hard to come by. Some believe the UK's indoor pot growing operations are being taken over by White Brits; others say Russian gangs.
The only real numbers available were provided by a consortium of anti-trafficking organizations known as RACE Europe. According to incomplete numbers forked over for a Freedom of Information Request filed with police departments all over the country, well over half the foreigners arrested for growing cannabis between January 2011 and April 2013 were Vietnamese — 100 were Vietnamese children.
'Voluntary' return
Researchers for the RACE project combed through newspaper clippings and found that UK courts sent 142 Vietnamese pot growers (nine of whom were children) to jail in spite of clear signs they'd been trafficked.
Sympathetic lawyers sent them letters informing them of their right to appeal.
“It's difficult, as not much can be done unless they agree,” wrote one member of the team in an email.
Chances are, if their story didn't make it into a newspaper, they've already gotten an offer to go home with money in their pocket.
Sen and Nhi (the two men arrested in the Portsmouth pot house) may already be on their way home.
All they have to do is drop the viable legal argument that the UK never should have sent them to jail in the first place. Then it's as easy as signing up for a number of programs that offer cash and plane tickets to foreign prisoners who agree to leave and not come back.
Refugee Action, an NGO which is contractually obligated to get 5,000 illegal migrants a year to sign up for voluntary return schemes, pointed out that not every illegal migrant gets the same homecoming package.
“For example, if a person has returned through our Choices Assisted Voluntary Return service, they will get significant support both before departure and on return to Vietnam,” wrote Refugee Action's spokesperson, Sarah Filbey, in an email.
“However some will have approached the UK Government directly expressing their wish to return, and will have only their flight cost covered. Some of these will simply have let the UK government know of their presence and intention to return, and will return of their own means and accord.”
The organization added that they get relatively few Vietnamese “clients.” For instance, they provided help to just two of the 218 illegal Vietnamese migrants who willingly came home last year.
Filbey said they anticipate only five more this year “of which perhaps two will be related to trafficking.”
Critics of these programs (in the context of marijuana migrants) range from anti-immigrant politicians who loathe the idea of sending criminals home with the Queen's sterling and those who note that it’s either stupid or callous (or both) to send a person you acknowledge to be in debt bondage to a criminal syndicate home with cash hanging out of their pocket.
Few in the UK seem too concerned about this.
The funds supplied by the UK government and the EU Refugee Fund are mainly dispersed by the International Organization for Migration, which operates under the United Nations umbrella.
A representative at IOM's Hanoi office provides assistance to about 550 Vietnamese returnees a year. Their job is to give them whatever money the UK says they should get.
The IOM’s UK office refused to provide a breakdown of their program because the Home Office wouldn't authorize a response.
In an essay published in Race Relations four years ago, former immigration barrister Frances Webber excoriated the schemes as “short sighted,” “hollow” and entirely “un-voluntary” in nature.
Resettlement grants proved largely “ineffective,” she noted.
Criminals or victims?
The UK points out that its resettlements in Vietnam come from all corners.
“Some are let out of prison, others are not in prison but are under orders to leave,” Mark Norton, head of the UK Migration and Returns Program at the country’s embassy in Hanoi, said. “It's in our interest that people settle back in Vietnam and we do what we can to assist them to do that.”
To qualify for the scheme, Norton said candidates “have to agree to leave without trying to prolong their stay through various court actions.”
Then, they can apply for resettlement grants.
“Some of them, when you get right down to it, are trafficked,” he admitted. In a subsequent interview, Norton said that trafficked Vietnamese pot growers should be protected by all rights but are often not.
“There's duress, there's huge debt bondage, there's threats to family,” he said, describing the ways in which they enter the work. “A lot of lying; a lot of distrust.”
Many end up in the UK after months of being trafficked through Russia and Eastern Europe, he said, noting that they arrive with nothing but a sim card sewn into their clothing and a vague idea about working at a restaurant.
Baffled cops discovering them locked up in grow houses are often the first to encounter them.
“I get calls from police all the time saying 'what am I supposed to do about this'?” he said.
When cases are referred to the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Center (UKHTC), they remain a tough sell.
“I think there's not a lot of sympathy for people who get trafficked to grow cannabis in the UK,” he said. “The fact is, a lot of them don't get referred [to the UKHTC].”
A change in the law
One day soon, that may prove very problematic.
A year ago, in May, an appeals court overturned the convictions of three Vietnamese children who'd been arrested in grow houses and a Ugandan sex worker traveling on false papers on the grounds that all four were forced to commit crimes by the people who trafficked them into the country.
“Whether trafficked from home or overseas, they are all victims of crime,” the ruling read. “That is how they must be treated and, in the vast majority of cases, they are: but not always.”
Over the past months, Thanh Nien News has talked to UK lawyers who said they're in the process of helping Vietnamese pot growers (kids and adults) overturn convictions and fight removal and deportation orders in court. 
Many were outraged to hear that people who had been trafficked into the UK were still being handed jail terms.
“That would be an abuse of the process,” said Nadine Finch, the lawyer who got the three Vietnamese kids out of jail last year.
Adults trafficked into grow houses should be protected under last year's ruling, but often aren't, she said.
Instead, they have to prove that they've been trafficked and aren't knowing participants in the grow operations. Considering Vietnam's level of development and social institutions, few British courts seem willing to believe they may be putting a full-grown man and his family in danger by sending him back.
“There’s police and there’s courts in Vietnam. Even if [trafficked Vietnamese cannabis gardeners] don’t get sentenced, they may very well get transferred from prison to an Immigration Removal Center,” Finch said.
Attorney Shabeer Quereshi, who has also defended underage Vietnamese cannabis growers in court, said he finds the cash incentives to be a major obstacle in his line of work.
“My role is to identify someone who is potentially trafficked,” he said via telephone. “Our ultimate anchor is to identify someone as a vulnerable adult and get them the help they need, but if there's a cash incentive to go home they'll take that.”
Criminal or victim?
Of course, it's hard to know how many illegal Vietnamese migrants go to the UK to grow pot and how many wind up just getting pushed into it. Sorting through all that would be a lot harder than just giving people money to go home.
Early this year, the UK embassy in Hanoi tried to do both.
They gave 140 returnees to the north-central province of Nghe An what amounted to a VND10 million (US$500) loan they were never expected to pay back and contracted local NGO Alliance Anti-Trafficking to conduct a survey that explained how they got to the UK and how they fared upon their return.
Only four returnees said they had gone to the UK knowing they would work in a cannabis grow house; nearly 70 percent of the respondents said growing cannabis ended up being their job.
The rest worked as waiters, legitimate gardeners, and nannies.
Some were paid handsomely to go home.
In addition to the stipend they received upon return to Nghe An, some members of the group had received as much as ₤5,000 pounds from the UK, depending on which programs and grants they'd applied for. Others got nothing.
While Alliance Anti-Trafficking acknowledged the generosity of the British government support in its findings, the organization concluded “this support is still limited and not really effective as expected.”
Many of the returnees described the work of growing pot as virtual hell: locked up in poorly ventilated homes, choking on chemical fertilizers and not knowing whether the next thing to come through the door would be a meal, the cops or a rival criminal gang.
Others described the job simply as “easier than raising chickens in Vietnam” but with the potential to yield ₤48,000 a year if everything went according to plan.
Ironically, that sum is roughly equivalent to what the UK spends incarcerating a foreign prisoner for the same period, hence the incentive programs.
'A brilliant business model'
For years now, Britain has wrung its hands about what to do with rural Vietnamese coming across the English channel stuffed into truck tires or sealed up in plastic bags to avoid CO2 detectors.
Due to the clandestine nature of trafficking, no one actually knows how many Vietnamese illegally migrate to the UK. An Alliance Anti-Trafficking representative guessed it could be as many as five or six thousand.
What's clear is that there's plenty of work for them to do when they get there.
Two years ago, the Association of Police Chief Officers (a sort of research forum for British cops) noted that the grow operations had shifted toward a small-scale model, “whereby a large number of gardeners are employed to manage small scale factories across multiple residential areas” in order to minimize financial losses.
After British landlords began eyeing Vietnamese tenants with suspicion, police said they began collaborating with white gangs to secure real estate.
“They've found a brilliant business model,” remarked Chloe Setter of ECPAT UK, an NGO that's worked valiantly to try to help trafficked Vietnamese kids caught in the cannabis trade.
“It's really easy to kick down a door, arrest an illiterate kid, grab some plants and say you've solved the crime,” she said.
“But, to my knowledge, no one has ever prosecuted the traffickers supplying these growers.”
Setter believes the only solution to the problem would be a coordinated, international effort to bust up the trafficking rings now piping rural Vietnamese labor into illicit grow houses all over the world.
The Czech Republic and the Netherlands have both independently made efforts to tackle cannabis-growing Vietnamese syndicates who are believed to have emerged out of a group of Vietnamese loggers who took over marijuana cultivation from Canadian biker gangs in British Columbia.
In April, Japanese cops pulled 1,300 plants out of some remote abandoned factories and arrested six Vietnamese.
It was the largest marijuana seizure in the nation's history.
Only getting worse
Trying to help the Vietnamese migrants inside the UK remains tricky.
According to the Guardian, while Vietnamese make up 0.1 percent of the UK general population, 20 percent of the UK's missing children are of Vietnamese origin. 
After their arrests, many kids get saved by do-gooders like Setter and are assigned to British foster care, from where they quickly disappear to work off the debts they believe they and their families back home owe to traffickers.
“I've heard of kids lying about their age," Kathryn Cronin, a senior litigator who has represented a dozen Vietnamese cannabis growers (including children), said few trafficking victims are willing to work with lawyers or British law enforcement.
“They always have the fear that even if they can be protected by some sort of witness protection program here, their parents aren't gong to be protected back in Vietnam,” she said via telephone.
She believes that voluntary return incentives only appeal to such people when they don't believe they have any access to justice and remain desperate to pay back their traffickers.
Cronin believes things will only get worse from here.
“You're going to see a much higher proportion of people going to prison and a higher instance of people being returned with a high risk of harm,” she said, citing endless political efforts to eliminate legal aid and funding for foreign victims of trafficking.
Cronin believes all these cost-cutting measures only end up shooting the UK in the foot. Law enforcement officials will never find out who the traffickers are if they keep treating potential witnesses like unwanted guests.
“The 2000 Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking is premised on the basis that if you're going to find the traffickers and stop what they're doing, you're going to have to protect their victims because they're the only people who can identify them and help you stop them.”
Battling 'Big Money”
Any Vietnamese crackdown on the illegal migration seems unlikely in the poorest and most trafficking-prone provinces in Vietnam's central-north.
For one thing, according to a police official in Nghe An Province, none of the returnees attempt to report the people who trafficked them to the UK.
Many view themselves as people who paid to be smuggled.
Beyond the lack of ledes, government and NGO propaganda programs warning of the dangers of illegal migration have had a tough time competing with the scores of households growing visibly rich on cannabis cash.
Thai Van Cuong, 37, counts himself among the hundreds of people in the poor, land-locked district of Yen Thanh have migrated to the UK to grow pot.
Many have sent back cash earned in cannabis grow houses. Others, like him, came back with nothing but the money the UK government gave them to leave: ₤1,500
In 2009, Cuong migrated to the Czech Republic for work but found only low-paying jobs. He moved to Germany, then France.
Finally, he was smuggled into the UK in the back of a container truck.
Once on the island, he got in touch with friends and began earning ₤600 a month working in a rented house, loaded with heat lamps and grow lights, alongside two other men.
After a long period as a hired hand, he and a native Brit decided to strike out on their own. The pair rented a house on the outskirts of London and planted 1,000 pot plants themselves.
Just before their harvest, the police kicked in their door.
“Lucky for me,” he told Thanh Nien News. “I'd already paid back all the money I borrowed to get smuggled to the Czech Republic.”
Many more don't. The trafficking routes go through Russia, Poland, Germany, France and finally the UK. Typically, he said, the syndicates demand more and more money along the way.
As the UK continues to kick down the doors of more grow houses and arrest more and more trafficked kids it seems most baffling that there's so little political will for the island to start legalizing, taxing and selling its own pot.
Full legalization has been endorsed by everyone from sitting police chiefs to conservative parliamentarians without much result. 
Last September, Professor Stephen Pudney of the Institute for Social and Economic Research released an analysis which suggested that full cannabis legalization would raise between ₤0.5 and ₤1.2 billion without having a significant impact on public health.
So far, there's been no takers, despite the potential economic gains for the UK –to say nothing of the satisfaction British people might get from smoking something not grown by Vietnamese child slaves and indentured rural farmers.
“I got a lot of response from the media,” Pudney said via telephone. “But no one in the government's said a word.”

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