Modern Slavery - a cost of the war on drugs

This is a guest blog by Radhika Jani


Today (18th October) marks Anti-Slavery Day, and provides an opportunity to raise awareness on human trafficking and modern-day slavery to encourage key players to address the problem. To mark this day ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking) have released a short film exposing how Vietnamese children are transported across the world and forced to grow illegal drugs in British houses.


The UN Palermo Protocol defines human trafficking as ‘the acquisition of a person by means of deception or coercion for the purpose of exploitation’. Estimates range from 21 million to 45 million people being held as modern slaves worldwide today.


Trafficking in human beings is a global business and the source of lucrative profits for traffickers and organised crime networks. It is the fastest growing international crime and behind the drugs trade, the second largest source of illegal income worldwide.


Contrary to the assumption that it is a problem bound to faraway places, the Home Office estimates there may be as many as 13,000 people held in slavery in the UK. And whilst many forms of trafficking and exploitation occur in the UK, evidence shows that the most prevalent form of child trafficking in the UK can be attributed to forced labour in cannabis cultivation.


ECPAT have launched an emotive campaign exposing the high levels of Vietnamese children trafficked across borders and forced to grow drugs in British houses under abusive and abhorrent conditions. They then find themselves unjustly criminalised under the UK’s punitive drug laws, and as Chloe Setter from ECPAT explains, “many vulnerable young people from Vietnam are treated as criminals before they are seen as victims of modern slavery, which only re-traumatises them and makes it more difficult to gain their trust”.


'The Secret Gardeners' by ECPAT UK


The number of Vietnamese minors reported as victims of human trafficking is at its highest on record: in 2016, there were 227 Vietnamese children identified as victims in the UK. Of all the potential trafficking victims who were forced into cannabis cultivation, 96 per cent were from Vietnam, and 81 per cent of these were children.


While the UK used to import the majority of its cannabis, some figures estimate that by 2010, 50% of cannabis was home-grown, with claims that Britain is now actually an exporter of cannabis too. Organised Vietnamese gangs who claim domestic properties as ‘factories’ are partly to blame for the UK’s new exporter status, and the demand for human labour in the cultivation of these drugs fuels human trafficking. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of cannabis farms detected by the police in the UK increased by more than 150 per cent.


Photo: Avon & Somerset Police

We at Transform believe that the correlation between illegal drug cultivation and a rise in human trafficking is yet another tragic bi-product of prohibition and the war on drugs.


It is as Jane Slater, Campaign Manager for our Anyone’s Child campaign, claims that “it is the poor and marginalised, in this case Vietnamese children, who bear the brunt of our current approach to drugs”.


By prohibiting cannabis, we hand the market over to criminals – the last people to care about child protection.


The UK should follow the lead of countries like Canada, which is in the process of legalising and regulating cannabis specifically to take organised criminals out of the trade and to better protect young people.


“There will be no trafficked child labour in Canada’s licensed cannabis farms, and age controls at the point of sale will also help keep minors safe,” Jane Slater adds.


By legalising and regulating the drugs trade, both the opportunity and profit motive for organised criminals will diminish, and bi-products of prohibition, such as human trafficking, will reduce significantly too. Governments would reclaim the power to be able to ensure that products are cultivated ethically, and distributed in a way that most reduces harm.


We need more anti-slavery groups and children’s rights organisations speaking out against prohibition.