TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Vietnamese grandmother doing time in an Irish prison is the face of a recent trend in human trafficking, human rights activists say.
She was lured from her rural village in Vietnam in 2012 with promises of a good job in Europe taking care of children. Instead she became a virtual prisoner, starved and forced to work as a gardener tending marijuana in a house outside Dublin, said her lawyer Aine Flynn in an interview.
The Vietnamese woman - who has asked that her name be withheld since her lawyer is requesting the court grant her anonymity as a victim of human trafficking - is just one example of hundreds of similar cases in the illegal marijuana trade in Ireland and the UK, say human rights groups.
“It certainly is a Europe-wide problem and what we suspect is that they might be rising across Europe and might be moving around,” said Klara Skrivankova, trafficking coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, in an interview. “We’re not talking about individuals and ad hoc cases, we’re talking about a systemic problem.”
An August 2013 assessment by the UK’s Serious Organized Crime Agency says “the number of potential victims who were reported to have been trafficked for cannabis cultivation increased 130 percent from 2011 to 2012”. The agency tallied 69 potential victims of trafficking for cannabis cultivation; 66 of them were Vietnamese, and 80 percent of the Vietnamese victims were children.
The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) said in a recent report that since the beginning of this year, they have been reviewing 21 cases they believe might be instances of human trafficking for marijuana cultivation.
Irish police have been conducting raids on marijuana growing houses throughout Ireland, and have discovered Vietnamese and Chinese undocumented migrants living and working in horrendous living conditions, sleeping on floors and stairs, and subjected to violence.
Yet not one of these cases is treated as human trafficking. Victims are instead accused of drug-related crimes, MRCI project coordinator Gráinne O’Toole told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Even though the police are trained in human trafficking, when they go into these crime scenes, they seem unable to identify victims of human trafficking,” O’Toole said.
A spokesperson for Ireland’s national police force declined comment on the issue, saying by email that with related cases before the courts, “any comment made could prejudice these cases.”
WILLINGLY SMUGGLED OR TRAFFICKED?
EUROPOL has been aware of illegal migrants working in grow houses in Europe for the past few years.
“We have heard reports from several European countries that Vietnamese are used as caretakers in these greenhouses where they grow marijuana,” EUROPOL spokesman Soren Pederson told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Some of them are working with the Vietnamese and Chinese who are running them, but some of [the grow houses] are also run by European organised crime gangs.”
But the difference between human trafficking and illegal immigration is blurry, Pederson said. Some migrants “might completely be aware that they are being smuggled in order to [work in grow houses]. So that’s not necessarily human trafficking.”
He said it’s difficult for law enforcement to get the “full picture” and tell the difference between illegal migrants and victims of human trafficking if they are not willing to fully cooperate with law enforcement.
Flynn’s firm, KOD Lyons, has represented numerous Vietnamese and Chinese clients, who say they migrated to Europe in hopes of securing legitimate employment, only to find themselves forced to work in marijuana houses, she said.
“The people who are in the drugs trade for serious profit, those who are directing operations, the real villains, are generally not those who come to court. It’s the mules, the gardeners in these cases, the exploited people who are vulnerable,” Flynn said.
Rachel Browne, a fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, freelances for Thomson Reuters Foundation.