January 13, 2018
The Home Office has been accused of cruelty over a decision to send a child victim of trafficking, who spent years in enforced slavery cultivating cannabis plants in England, back to Vietnam, where he has no family.
The child, known as S, was a 10-year-old orphan living on the streets of Hanoi, when he was picked up by gangsters and trafficked from Vietnam to England. For five years he was locked into a series of terraced houses which had been converted into cannabis farms, and forced to work as a cannabis gardener.
He worked for no pay in dangerous conditions, watering the plants, mixing toxic growth-boosting chemical fertilisers, turning industrial lights on and off at eight-hourly intervals to maximise plant growth, and pruning and drying out the crops. The chemicals made him ill; he burned his hair and skin on the hot lamps, and occasionally got electric shocks from the tangle of wires powering the lights.
For several years he lived alone, cut off from the outside world, under instructions to keep away from the windows, so passersby would not know he was inside. He was visited periodically by his traffickers, who dropped off food for him and inspected the plants. If the plants looked sickly he was beaten.
“I was like an animal, kept in a box,” he said at the home where he lives with his foster family. He has asked not to be identified, to prevent his traffickers from pursuing him.
“I had nothing to do except sleep and look after the cannabis plants. I didn’t know anything about England. They told me the neighbours were bad people who would kill me if they saw me. They said the police would kill me if they found me. They threatened me with knives, and cut my arms and legs when I did things wrong. They said they would kill me if I tried to escape.”
When he was 16 S was arrested during a drugs raid and police identified him as a victim of trafficking. He spoke only a few words of English when he was taken into foster care but has started college, and now speaks it fluently. When he turned 17-and-a-half his automatic right to remain in the country as a child asylum seeker expired and he applied for refugee status. His application has been refused.
In a 20-page explanation of the decision, addressed to “Master S”, a Home Office official noted that S had shown “considerable personal fortitude in relocating to the UK and attempting to establish a life here”, adding that there was no reason why he “could not demonstrate the same resolve to reestablish [his] life in Vietnam”. The wording has triggered anger among S’s supporters who point out that he did not display any “personal fortitude in relocating to the UK” but was violently trafficked into debt-bondage from which he was unable to escape.
The decision letter also suggests that S would be able to “reintegrate back into society in Vietnam with little problems”. S, now 19, said that given he has not been there since he was 10, it would be extremely hard for him to readjust. He has lodged an appeal, due to be held in early February, but if this is refused he has been told he must leave the country
Helen Goodman, S’s MP and the shadow minister for foreign affairs, described the decision as “grotesque”.
“It is shocking that the Home Office are proposing to send S back to a Vietnam. The prime minister has made a great deal of tackling modern slavery but the reality of how a victim of human trafficking is treated is very far from the rhetoric.” She has written to Amber Rudd, the the home secretary, asking her to intervene, stating that “the Home Office is completely failing in basic human responsibility to S. The issue is not one of immigration but child trafficking.” She has not received a reply.
S said he was never treated as a child or with any kindness by his traffickers, who sold the harvested drugs to British drug dealers. He met many other teenage boys from Vietnam, some younger than him, similarly enslaved when he was transferred between cannabis houses (often after a police raid, or a robbery by another gang). “Young people from Vietnam have no idea about this country, so it’s easy to scare them and force them to work without pay. People should know this is how cannabis is grown here. The police should work harder to stop this,” he said.
There are no accurate figures revealing the numbers of Vietnamese young people trafficked to the UK, but anti-trafficking charities believe that thousands of children have been smuggled in to work as cannabis farmers over the past decade. Many of those arrested by police and taken into the care system are so well-groomed by their traffickers, and so terrified by threats of violence to their family back home, that they run away and return to those who exploit them.
Chloe Setter, the head of policy at the anti-trafficking children’s charity ECPAT UK(Every Child Protected Against Trafficking), said: “Children who are victims of modern slavery need longterm support and protection to stay safe and recover from their abuse – they shouldn’t have their futures dictated by immigration objectives. Most concerning of all is the potential risk that he faces on return of being re-trafficked, which is a sadly very common in such cases.”
S is devastated by the decision. “I have a great life here, a great family. How can I survive somewhere where I have no one? I worry the gangsters would find me again.”
The Home Office said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and every case is assessed on its individual merits.” A spokesperson added that the government announced last year that it would spend at least £3m in Vietnam, “to catch offenders, support victims and stop people falling into slavery in the first place”.