(Photo via Flickr user eggrole)
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-growing operation on the outskirts of Dublin and forced to care for the weed plants. According to her lawyer, Aine Flynn, the 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 of 2012, during a police raid, and has been in prison awaiting her sentence ever since.
The Vietnamese woman – whose name is being withheld because 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-growing operations 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 told me.
There is 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 UK. The latest assessment by the Serious Organised Crime Agency says the number of people trafficked for marijuana cultivation “increased by 130 percent from 2011 to 2012… 56 (81 percent) were children”. Little was known about the problem outside of the UK until late March, when a report titled “Trafficking for Forced Labour in Cannabis Production: The Case of Ireland” was published by the Migrant Rights Centre (MRCI). The report, which is part of an ongoing project by Anti-Slavery International aimed at providing research on human trafficking in Europe, appears to show that forced labour in marijuana facilities is happening across the European Union.
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 that even though the police are trained in human trafficking, they still do not identify them as victims.
Chinese national Meng Feng Chen, who in January was given a five-year prison sentence after being kept in "virtual slavery" at a cannabis grow house in County Cork, Ireland (Photo via)
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 possible sentence of ten years in prison.
According to another report by Anti-Slavery International, gardeners working in grow houses face additional risks beyond being hauled off to a jail cell. As you might imagine, workers' rights groups aren't consulted when determining appropriate working conditions for slave labourers. Those working in illegal grow houses, the report found, are often exposed to noxious fumes, constant heat and light, and the risk of fire and electrocution from shoddy wiring and energy supplies.
MRCI is currently reviewing 21 cases in the Irish courts believed to be possible instances 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 like the UK 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 who 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 me an email declining to 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.
Soren Pedersen, a spokesperson for Europol, told me, “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.”
Jesper Lund, an officer with Interpol’s Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Unit, said that when Vietnamese workers are found during raids on grow operations, 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'd raided a marijuana grow house and identified “a couple of victims of trafficking in human beings”.
“The trend is going toward a recognition of Vietnamese organised crime groups using Vietnamese victims," Lund explained. "I believe we are moving there.”