Hien was 10 when he arrived in Britain. He did not know where he was or where he had been. He knew only that he was here to work. Since he emerged from the back of a lorry after crossing from Calais seven years ago, his experience has been one of exploitation and misery. He has been a domestic slave, been trafficked into cannabis factories, been abused and beaten and was eventually prosecuted and sent to prison. It has been a life of terror, isolation and pain.
Hien’s story is not unique. He is one of an estimated 3,000 Vietnamese children in forced labour in the UK, used for financial gain by criminal gangs running cannabis factories, nail bars, garment factories, brothels and private homes. Charged up to £25,000 for their passage to the UK, these children collectively owe their traffickers almost £75m.
While there is growing awareness of the use of trafficked Vietnamese people in the booming domestic cannabis trade, child trafficking experts are now warning that the British authorities are unable to keep up with the speed at which UK-based Vietnamese gangs are recruiting and exploiting children for use in other criminal enterprises such as gun-smuggling, crystal meth production and prostitution rings.
“By our calculations there are around 3,000 Vietnamese children in the UK who are being used for profit by criminal gangs,” says Philip Ishola, former head of the UK’s Counter Human Trafficking Bureau.
“The police and the authorities are now aware that trafficked children are being forced to work in cannabis farms but this is really only the tip of the iceberg. Often the same child will be exploited not just in a cannabis farm but also in myriad different ways. This is happening right under our noses and not enough is being done to stop it.”
Police admit that they are struggling with the speed at which Vietnamese criminal gangs are diversifying and expanding their activities across the England and into Scotland and Northern Ireland. “Right now we are just fighting in the trenches, fighting in the nail bars,” said detective inspector Steven Cartwright, who heads Police Scotland’s human trafficking unit. “It is vital that we that we understand new methods being deployed by the gangs because we need to stop demand at one end or limit their ability to make money at the other.”
Hien’s journey to the UK started when he was taken from his village at the age of five by someone who claimed to be his uncle. As an orphan, he had no option but to do as he was told. He spent five years travelling overland, completely unaware which countries he was going through, from Vietnam before being smuggled across the Channel and taken to a house in London. Here he spent the next three years trapped in domestic servitude, cooking and cleaning for groups of Vietnamese people who would come in and out of the property where he was held.
The men in the house beat him and forced him to drink alcohol until he was sick. Other things happened to him that he still cannot talk about. He was never allowed out of the house and was told that if he tried to escape, the police would arrest him and take him to prison.
During his time in that house, Hien says, many other Vietnamese children were brought in. They told him that they were here to work and to pay off debts for their families back home. They would stay for a few days and then be taken away, and Hien never saw them again. He became homeless after his “uncle” abandoned him. He slept in parks and ate out of bins. He was eventually picked up by a Vietnamese couple, who offered him a place to stay but then forced him to work in cannabis farms in flats in first Manchester and then Scotland.