This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
In early 2012, a woman approached a Vietnamese grandmother and offered her a stable job in Europe as a nanny. The grandmother accepted, delighted at the possibility of earning enough money to pay off her heavy debts and support her family.
But she had been tricked. Instead of taking care of children, she says she was kept as a slave in a marijuana grow op on the outskirts of Dublin and forced to care for the weed plants. According to her lawyer Aine Flynn (who I spoke to recently), this woman was starved, had her documents confiscated, and was threatened with violence by the men in charge if she disobeyed. She was arrested in November 2012 during a police raid, and has been in prison awaiting her sentence ever since.
This Vietnamese woman — whose name is being withheld since Flynn is requesting that the High Court in Ireland grant her anonymity as a human trafficking victim — is just one of hundreds of trafficking victims, mostly from Vietnam and China, being forced to work as “gardeners” in marijuana grow-ops across Europe, human rights groups claim.
What’s more, they say, these gardeners are often charged and convicted with the crimes they were forced to commit.
“They’re coerced and manipulated from the start. They’re misled. They don’t believe they’re coming here to work in grow houses,” Flynn said.
There’s limited data available on the problem, but media and NGO reports (here, here, here and here) have been documenting human trafficking into the marijuana industry in the U.K. The latest assessment by the U.K.’s Serious Organized Crime Agency says the number of people trafficked for marijuana cultivation “increased by 130% from 2011 to 2012… 56 (81%) were children.” Much less is known about the problem outside of the U.K.
Now, for the first time, a report entitled “Trafficking for Forced Labour in Cannabis Production: The Case of Ireland” from the Migrant Rights Center (MRCI) provides insight into the situation, which appears to be happening across the European Union. This report is part of an ongoing project by Anti-Slavery International that’s researching human trafficking in Europe.
Grainne O’Toole, MRCI’s project coordinator, told me the police have been “finding people locked into cannabis grow houses in squalor conditions, malnourished, not receiving any money for what they were doing and living under threat.” She said even though the police are trained on human trafficking, they still do not identify them as victims.
This includes a Vietnamese man — called “Mr. B” in the report to protect his identity — who says he thought he was going to work in law, but instead was forced to garden marijuana plants in a barn. B said he was brought food once a week. When the police raided the barn, he told them he had been kept as a slave and threatened with violence. He was charged with possession, and now faces a sentence of ten years in prison.
Risks to gardeners working in grow-ops are outlined in another Anti-Slavery International report, and include being exposed to noxious fumes, constant heat and light, and the risk of fire and electrocution from shoddy wiring and energy supplies.
MRCI is reviewing 21 cases currently before the Irish courts they believe might be cases of human trafficking and not drug crimes, O’Toole said.
I spoke with Klara Skrivankova, trafficking coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, who told me the trend of slavery in the marijuana trade across Europe is “a significant problem” that requires further investigation, adding that the MRCI report is a good first step.
She mentioned that even though Vietnamese people represent a significant group of trafficking victims in countries such as the U.K. and Ireland, it’s not perceived as a big problem by the Vietnamese government. “They have a much bigger issue with trafficking of Vietnamese within the region, Vietnamese trafficked to China, Cambodia, and elsewhere,” she said.
Skrivankova warns law enforcement and courts in Europe against prosecuting the low-level gardeners without first considering they might not be there by choice. She said governments need to have protocols to identify victims trafficked for illicit activities so they can bring the traffickers themselves to justice.
“Countries are perpetuating the crime. If you have a victim that is prosecuted, it’s very easy for the trafficker to just replace that particular victim,” she said.
A press officer for the national police in Ireland sent an email to me saying they couldn’t comment on this issue, because it might prejudice cases currently before the courts.
Officers at EUROPOL and INTERPOL told me they’ve noticed a trend of undocumented Vietnamese migrants working in marijuana grow houses connected to Vietnamese gangs in Europe, but that it’s difficult for law enforcement to tell the difference between trafficking victims and those working there by choice.
“Some of them are illegal immigrants and this might be a way that they pay off some of the costs in connection with the fare of being smuggled into the EU. So that’s not necessarily human trafficking, that’s illegal immigration.” Soren Pedersen, a spokesperson for EUROPOL, told me.
Jesper Lund, an officer with INTERPOL’s Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Unit, told me that when Vietnamese workers are found during grow op raids, they’re typically arrested and charged with drug-related offences. He said that while some might be trafficked, others might claim they’re victims to avoid charges after they’re caught. But he says law enforcement’s approach is gradually changing.
“I’ve seen several other European countries where they are identifying the workers as victims of trafficking,” he said. He told me he heard from officers in Denmark the other day that they had raided a marijuana grow house and identified “a couple of victims of trafficking in human beings.”
“The trend is going towards a recognition of Vietnamese organized crime groups using Vietnamese victims. I believe we are moving there.”
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