In November 2012 a 54-year-old Vietnamese woman was found working inside a cannabis grow house in Glasnevin north Dublin by immigration police. The cannabis farm was padlocked from the outside and the cops had to storm the doors to find her. Although the woman was trapped in the grow-house, she was charged with unlawful possession of cannabis and with possession for the purpose of supply.
After being shut up inside a weed farm, the middle-aged woman is now languishing in Ireland's overcrowded prison system. She's waiting for the courts to preside over her appeal to the high court. Garda Immigration (immigration police) failed to see her as a victim, but she insists that she was trafficked and forced into slavery against her will. It is being decided whether the police's actions refusal to see her as a trafficking victim were lawful.
This case has thrown a spotlight on Ireland's inadequate trafficking framework, which criminalises people who have been forced into illegal activities like cannabis cultivation.
Asian controlled grow houses have been operating since the early 2000s, when crime groups from east Asia were drawn to Ireland's booming economy and growing Asian community. Triad gangs like the Wo Shing Wo established a base in the capital creating prostitution and drug networks, including the cultivation of cannabis.
Workers, trafficked from China, Vietnam and Malaysia are kept in confinement in rural locations. Human rights activists claim this is modern day slavery. A report published by the Irish Migrant Right Centre last year said 75 percent of Asians jailed for cultivating cannabis claimed they had been exploited or maltreated.
Pablo Rojas Coppari, Policy Officer for Dublin's Migrant Rights Centre, has been working with Anti Slavery International to highlight Ireland's new grow-house slavery. He told me about the living conditions of those brought over to toil in Ireland's illegal weed farms. "It's a mixed range of people, some know they're being brought to Ireland, some don't," he said. "They usually live in warehouses or a house converted into a grow-house. They sleep wherever they can. Last week I dealt with a guy whose bedroom was a mattress in the toilet. Anything that is considered 'space' is given over to plants."
For many victims, being discovered by the police doesn't mean salvation. It means a new period of imprisonment – this time by the state.
Wendy Lyon, a solicitor from KOD Lyons, is acting on behalf of the Vietnamese woman. She says the state is still looking for the "ideal" victim of trafficking to help and in doing so, ignores more commonplace human rights violations that take place."I often think there's this ideal trafficking victim stereotype of a person who crosses the border in chains. But the reality is much more complex," she said.
The system in place to deal with it is more about locking people up than helping them, she told me. "The trafficking framework isn't based on human rights but on criminal justice. It's not set up for people who might have agreed to work illegally or even in criminal activities despite these people meeting the definition for trafficking. Look, if you find yourself padlocked into a building it's a human rights issue," she said.
There's also an unhealthy conflict of interests at play. Irish immigration police – charged with removing illegal immigrants from the streets – are also the ones who are supposed to be identifying trafficking victims.
Pablo explained, "The people who determine whether someone is a victim of trafficking are the immigration police – which is essentially a policing role. So this is conflicted. On the one hand they are responsible for reducing irregular migration, but then they are also responsible for identifying potential victim. The police who arrest these people should not be responsible for figuring out if they're victims," he said.
Ireland is also failing to allow suspected victims of trafficking sufficient time – as allocated by EU law – to recover before engaging with a police investigation.During this time, suspected victims are entitled to food and accommodation without police interference. A barrister for the state claimed that as she was in prison and was getting three meals a day, the government had fulfilled its recovery duties.
Pablo was dismayed at the decision. "I'm not even going to try to understand how that barrister saw a parallel between providing someone with accommodation and food and throwing them in prison," he said. "Victims are entitled to 60 days of reflection and recovery. It is not just about food and board, it's about giving a person time to decide whether or not they want to pursue the investigation and co-operate with the Gardai. These people need that time and space."
The most recent report from 2014 says out of 32 people in jail for cannabis cultivation, 25 are Chinese or Vietnamese. Pablo told me this figure continues to grow."It's a growing trend, so I'd say we're looking at a lot more than that now, victims continue to go to prison here," he said.
For most victims of trafficking, identifying and confronting those who subjected them to horrific abuse is an incredibly confusing and distressing process. While the Irish government pursues modern day slaves, the people running Ireland's illegal weed farms remain unscathed. It seems those with the key to the padlocks continue to walk free while their victims are locked up yet again.
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