Pubdate: Sun, 23 Sep 2007
Source: Independent on Sunday (UK)
Copyright: Independent Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Nina Lakhani
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


Youngsters Are Being Shipped Across the World and Held Captive in 
Towns and Suburbs Up and Down the Country.

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 UKP300,000 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

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

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) 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake