Anyone who thinks the business of cannabis cultivation in the UK is a friendly, hippyish occupation, imbued with wholesome organic principles, needs to reflect on the experience of Stephen, a vulnerable Vietnamese orphan who was 10 when he was trafficked to the UK to work as an enslaved cannabis farmer.
Stephen arrived in Britain in the back of a freezer lorry, after a long journey on foot and in trucks from Hanoi, where he had been destitute and homeless. In Britain, he was locked up alone in a series of terraced houses that had been converted into cannabis farms, and forced over the course of four years to work as a cannabis gardener by the Vietnamese gang that had smuggled him here.
In many ways, his unhappy childhood has taken a very positive turn. At 16, Stephen was arrested during a drugs raid and police recognized him as a victim of trafficking. He was taken into foster care by a vicar in County Durham, where he has learned fluent English and taught himself to cook by watching YouTube videos. He hopes to become a chef and work in a Chinese or Thai restaurant. However, now that he is 19, the Home Office has ruled that he must return to Vietnam. He has no family or friends there, and feels he would be at risk of being re-trafficked by gangs back to the UK.
Despite Stephen’s experience as a victim of modern slavery – one of the most high-profile causes adopted by the prime minister – the Home Office decided in December that he had no valid asylum case. Last-minute campaigning is underway ahead of a final appeal tribunal hearing on Monday, attempting to overturn the ruling. On Thursday, Stephen (his real name cannot be revealed as he could be identified by his traffickers) will travel to the Home Office to deliver a letter to Home Secretary Amber Rudd, asking for her support. More than 100,000 people have signed a petition backing his campaign to remain.
The details of his case provide a rare insight into the conditions in which a significant proportion of cannabis is cultivated in the UK. Although the existence of young cannabis slaves is well-known, most former gardeners are too frightened about reprisals from their traffickers to talk in detail about their experience; often they have been told that family in Vietnam will be targeted if they speak out. Because Stephen has no family in Vietnam, and is hopeful that publicity may help avert deportation, he gave a long interview in January in the quiet sitting room of the vicarage where he has spent the past three years.
Abandoned at birth, and then effectively orphaned a second time at nine when the woman who cared for him died of cancer, he travelled from rural Vietnam to Hanoi, to work as a shoe cleaner and newspaper seller, before traffickers spotted him and offered him a better life in the UK. “They promised a lot of good things, that they would give me a great life; they were just lying to me,” he says. What followed was a difficult journey across Europe and then four years of slavery at the hands of his traffickers, locked up in flats and houses around England, where the contents and furnishings had been stripped out, replaced by rows of cannabis seedlings.
His journey from Vietnam took him to Russia, where he was sold by one gang to another, and then to Poland and later, he thinks, to a camp known as Vietnam City in northern France: a squalid collection of huts hidden next to a disused mine shaft that has, for years, been used as a holding camp for Vietnamese nationals being trafficked to the UK.
During the parts of the journey when he was expected to walk – mostly during the night to remain unseen – he was beaten to make him go faster, “sometimes with hands, sometimes with sticks”. On the final stretch of the journey, he was put in the back of a freezer lorry, with four other people, for the Channel crossing. Once they arrived in Britain, the leader of their small group started banging on the side of the truck, until the driver came out and opened the door. “We ran to a forest, then the leader, who had a mobile phone, called someone in the Vietnamese group in England, and they came and picked us up,” he says. “First there was a motorway and lots of trees around and then lots of houses, lots of traffic jams, everywhere was crowded with people. I think it was London.”
He was taken to a six-room house, where every room had been emptied and converted into a cannabis-growing area. “Three people stayed for the first few days to show me how to organize everything. Then they locked the door and left me alone,” he said. By this point, he thinks he was about 12 years old.
“To water the cannabis, I had to mix lots of liquids and powder together with water. It was difficult work – dangerous and unhealthy. When I mixed the liquids, I would be dizzy and sick afterwards,” he said. “There were about 40 big lamps in the house. I had to be very careful with all the wires. Sometimes I electrocuted myself. Sometimes I touched the lamps with my head and burned my hair, sometimes I burned my arm.” It was impossible to look out of the windows because they were all covered with thick insulating plastic. He didn’t know if it was night or day and he doesn’t know if he was there for weeks or months. Every few days, in the evening, a group of Vietnamese men would come to inspect the plants, bringing him food. “Sometimes I did something wrong that made some plants die. They would get angry and beat me. My life was much worse than when I lived in Vietnam.”
He was taught how to harvest the plants when they were ready and hang them from the ceiling to dry. Occasionally, dealers would come to buy the plants and he saw large sums of money change hands. Once, a gang of British drug dealers kicked the door down, tied him up, and stole the entire cannabis harvest. When his own minders returned, they were angry, but simply moved him on to a new location, where he had to begin the process of cultivating cannabis seedlings again. In the next house, they no longer locked him inside, but they told him they would find him and kill him if he tried to escape. He never tried to flee because he had no idea where to go.
“I just lived day by day. I couldn’t see anything in the future. No one was kind to me.” He thinks, in total, he worked in about 20 cannabis houses. When he was about 14, the police raided one of the houses, and started shouting at him. “I didn’t understand what they were saying. I didn’t speak any English. I was very frightened; I thought the police would kill me or do something terrible, but they took me to stay with an English family.” His traffickers had prepared him for this eventuality, and had given him a number to call. After two days with the foster family, Stephen called them and went back to them. “I was so frightened. I thought I was going to be put in prison. It was very stupid.”
His traffickers started to make him smoke cannabis, gave him vodka and whisky with every meal, and made him take a white powder that he thinks was probably cocaine. “At first, it was quite bad and I didn’t like it, but when I had it I felt strong and I could work harder; when I didn’t have it, I felt very tired.”
He wasn’t familiar with the concept of slavery but now he understands that this is what he experienced. “I think I was a slave. I worked for them for a long time, but I earned nothing. They said I owed them lots of money for the journey here, so I had to work; only when I had paid them back enough, then I could leave. But when I asked how long that would take, they said: ‘You are not allowed to ask that.’” Every time the plants died, or were stolen, he was told it was his fault, and the money would be added to the amount he owed them; they talked about a debt of $100,000 – although he had no understanding of what that sum represented.
After a second drugs raid and a second arrest when he was 16, he was given a translator who helped him to understand his situation better. He was sent to stay with the vicar’s family and this time he was delighted to escape from the traffickers.
He is very conscious that his experiences are not unique. He met dozens of other trafficked boys during the time he was working, most of them a bit older, but the youngest about 10. “He was very unhappy,” he says. “He was crying; he missed his family and his parents.” He understands why Vietnamese children from poor backgrounds such as his own are targeted. “Gangsters couldn’t control British people,” he says. Sometimes, walking in nearby towns, he thinks he can see cannabis houses, recognizing them by the absence of frost on the roof – the heat from all the lights pouring out and melting the ice.
All over the country, young Vietnamese people are being forced to work in similar conditions. Until a few years ago, if they were caught they would have been sent to young offenders’ institutions (in spite of the fact that the majority had been trafficked against their will and forced to do this work); now they are usually recognized as victims of trafficking, but mostly they are denied asylum, deported back to Vietnam, where they return to their old homes, and often re-encounter their traffickers, who re-traffic them back to the UK.
The anti-trafficking organization Ecpat hopes that anger about Stephen’s case may trigger reform of the system designed to support victims. “Children identified as victims of trafficking are among the most vulnerable in our society and most in need of long-term protection,” the organization warns in a letter to the home secretary. The charity has recently taken a short animated film to Vietnam explaining the risks of being trafficked, showing it to children in deprived rural areas, to help educate them about the risk of being made to work in cannabis farms.
Ahead of his hearing, Stephen has felt extremely worried about the prospect of a return to Vietnam. His foster mother says he has been having trouble sleeping. “We see him as a member of our family; as long as he needs a home with us, he has a room here,” she says. “We don’t want him to go back.”