Hundreds of young children illegally trafficked into the UK are the new victims of Britain's booming cannabis trade. Figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal that, as organised criminals push cannabis production to record levels, at least one child a week is being found by police raiding cannabis factories.
Experts warn that children as young as 13 are been smuggled from south-east Asia to work as "slaves" for gangs in dangerous conditions, being kept captive in towns and suburbs across the UK. They believe there has been a five-fold increase in the trade in the past 12 months.
Police believe organised crime gangs, largely Vietnamese, have moved quickly to dominate the UK cannabis market after declassification in 2004 increased the potential rewards of growing and selling the drug and decreased the risks of punishment.
Gangs can reap up to £300,000 profit a year from a three-bedroom house converted into a cannabis factory. Children are brought in by gangs to tend the plants. Many have been found unable to escape through doors or windows sealed and wired to give off dangerous electric shocks. Others fear reprisals against relatives if they try to escape. Police are currently raiding up to three houses a day where children are being discovered.
"There is clear evidence that there are young people who are trafficked, bought and sold, for the purpose of forced labour in cannabis production in the UK," said Christine Beddoe, director of the campaign group End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (Ecpat).
"In the past 12 months there has been a 500 per cent increase in the number of cases being reported to us. We now get told about one young person every week being removed from a cannabis factory. But nobody knows the true scale of the problem."
Simon Byrne, Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside Police and cannabis spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said colleagues call cannabis "the cash machine of organised crime".
He said: "For the police, crime reduction is based on a simple equation in people's minds between risk and reward. If you remove the risk, people exploit it. If you put the risk back into enforcement, they will adapt and go into another type of business."
Experts say Vietnamese gangs were the quickest to exploit opportunities in the cannabis market and have since become renowned for trafficking children as cannabis slaves.
Peter Stanley, from the campaign group Stop the Traffic, said: "We can almost talk about designer trafficking, where criminals traffic to order, and there is evidence that particular south-east Asian villages are targeted for specific trades, with Vietnam now known to specialise in boys for cannabis factories."
Once here, children are forced to work as "gardeners", watering and tending the plants, and have to sleep in lofts or cupboards. Neighbours are often unaware of their existence. Even after they are discovered by police, their ordeal isn't over.
Campaigners have called for better protection for trafficked children as local authorities have been slow to appreciate the danger these young people face from the criminals that exploit them.
Ms Beddoe said many Vietnamese children go missing from care within 48 hours of being removed from cannabis houses and no one knows what happens to them. She said: "Local authorities are struggling to keep these kids safe, and it doesn't help that agencies are not sharing information."
Tuan Nguyen, a young Vietnamese boy, was discovered in Salford, Greater Manchester, in June. After being placed in a local authority care home, he is now missing and it is feared he has been snatched back by the gang that brought him to the UK.
Paul Woltman, Salford's assistant director of children's services, defended the council's conduct of the boy's care. He said: "We wanted to look after him in an environment which was reasonably normal as well as secure, but at the same time recognised his right to some freedom."
Experts are also critical of the justice system's treatment of these children. While some are seen as victims and taken into care, many more face prosecution and jail.
Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said: "Many of these young people are victims twice over – at the hands of the criminal gangs who brought them to this country, forcing them to work in cramped, dangerous conditions, and again when they find themselves treated as criminals by the UK authorities. The presumption should be against these young people serving jail terms and instead given support and protection."
At Basildon Crown Court earlier this year, Judge Christopher Mitchell took the view that two young Vietnamese men charged with cannabis production were likely victims of trafficking and voiced particular concerns about the plight of the 16-year-old defendant who had allegedly been snatched from his family and brought to the UK.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) defended their actions in bringing the case, saying they were not given any evidence suggesting the youngsters were trafficking victims.
A CPS spokeswoman said: "Prosecutors have been told to be aware when they are presented with cases of cannabis factories of the possibility of human trafficking and to factor in this information when making charging decisions."
Further reading: 'Rights Here, Rights Now' by Jana Sillen and Christine Beddoe (Ecpat UK/Unicef UK, 2007)Reuse content