In unassuming towns and suburbs across the UK, there are houses with their windows covered, blocking out natural light. Inside, artificial lights illuminate hundreds of cannabis plants.
There’s often another defining characteristic of these houses: a person, most likely a young Vietnamese or Albanian man, who has been trafficked to the UK on false pretences and forced to tend to the plants. These men fear for their lives; they spend their days hungry, sleeping on the floor, hoping to be reunited with their families so they can start a new life in the UK. But often, the next time they see daylight is on their way to a police station.
These victims – many of whom don’t speak English – are often interviewed by police as suspects of a crime. They’re treat like criminals; detained, imprisoned and forced back to places from which they risked their lives to escape. In 2018, an estimated 507 victims of trafficking were detained in prisons and immigration centres across England.
As part of his master’s degree in Applied Criminology at the University of Cambridge, Adam Ramiz, detective inspector at Surrey Police, was required to do some original research. He wanted to make a contribution, and landed on the subject of modern slavery because it’s known to be an area that lacks understanding.
He zoomed in on cannabis farms, and, in an effort to get much deeper than just data and statistics, he visited three victims in prison, who were all arrested during police raids. Their names have been changed.
Huy works as a taxi driver in Vietnam*. He attends a protest against a Chinese oil rig in a disputed region of the South China Sea, and later, police visit his house and accused him of betraying his country.
He’s scared for his life; a friend had recently disappeared after being arrested by the Vietnamese government. He knows he has to leave his country. He’s introduced to an agent, who says they can help him for a fee of £20,000.
Huy is transported in the back of a lorry through Laos and Thailand to China. He then chooses the UK as his final stop, where he’s told he’ll work as a labourer, a chef, a kitchen worker or cleaner. In China, an agent takes his passport and he flies to Russia.
He arrives in the UK on the back of a lorry and is taken to a maisonette above a launderette, overlooking a market town high street. He realises he'll be sharing the flat with 349 cannabis plants, and will be sleeping on a blanket on the floor. The agents tell him how to take care of the plants – and in return, they say, they’ll take care of him. His wife and children will come to the UK, his immigration status will be sorted and his debts paid off.
Huy is arrested in 2017, two years after police find the cannabis farm he was forced to look after. He’s interviewed by police for just 23 minutes. He pleads guilty, and is charged with the production of a class B controlled substance.
At the age of 34, Huy is in prison in south east England, awaiting his sentence. Dressed in his prison uniform, he tells Ramiz through a translator:
“I could only afford to pay them £6,000, so the rest … they told me, I have a contract with them. I have to work for them for one year to repay the debt. If I try to run away, if they found me, they would kill me. They said I wouldn’t see my family if I tried to escape. I think they tried to threaten me in order to not escape.
“When we were walking in the forest at night from Russia to Poland. The agent doesn’t want the immigration control to find out, so you have to walk for maybe two, three days. I saw one person had been beaten up. He walked behind me, when I turned round, he was unconscious.
“I do not dare to leave the house without telling them, because I fear for my life. Also I fear for my family’s life in Vietnam. If I escape they could try to look for me and also my family. They threaten me before. They told me if I tried to escape they would harm my family, so I knew they would do it. "
Vinh, 23, wants to leave Vietnam to improve his financial situation. His mother borrows money from neighbours to pay agents who say they’ll smuggle him to Russia. They do, and he works for several years in a factory. Then, he’s smuggled into the UK in a lorry and taken to a house where cannabis is growing. He's locked inside.
A few months after Huy is arrested, Met police officers discover a cannabis farm after reports of an apparent attempted burglary. Inside, they find Vinh. They arrest him, and take him to the police station, where they interview him for just 10 minutes.
He’s in shock, he’s tired and disoriented, and he doesn’t understand what the police are asking him. The police officer questioning Vinh has had a total of 20 minutes’ training about modern slavery. His defence lawyer, who is present in the interview to advise Vinh, tells him to plead guilty, so he does.
The officer in charge submits a National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which offers protection to victims of human trafficking. The National Crime Agency (NCA), however, rule that Vinh is not a slavery victim, because he consented. He tells Ramiz from prison:
“I have to pay them. I were told by the agent that if I wanted to go to the UK, they would arrange it, but I would have to work for them to pay the debt.
“The Vietnamese man told me to work. He said, 'Work to finish in order to pay off the debt, and if you work hard you could leave this place, but remember never, never think about escape'. I was told that if I tried to escape then I would be in trouble if they found me. They didn’t tell me that they would kill me, they said they would harm me.”
Albanian Petrit decides he wants to come to the UK to better his financial situation. He is told he can repay his debt, which he was running out of time to repay, by growing cannabis for three months. He’s arrested in London and released under investigation, but the officer calls him back in, concerned he might have been a trafficking victim.
He’s asked whether he was forced to work against his will, whether he was threatened with violence or locked inside the house, but Petrit answers ‘no comment’.
“We are there to try and help people in these situations*,” the police officer who interviewed Petrit tells Ramiz.
“But if they don’t want to talk to the police it’s sort of hitting a brick wall really. In terms of him possibly being trafficked or forced into those conditions, there’s always ways out of it, but if they’re not ready to help you and talk to you, you can’t really do much for them, can you?”
None of the men pleaded victimisation, even though they were eligible to be considered modern slavery victims, Ramiz says, and even officers who had concerns about modern slavery didn’t record any appropriate crime or open any formal investigations.
Charities wouldn't put Ramiz in touch with victims, to help protect their identity, so he relied on the help of colleagues and raw police data from his own force to track the men down. The interviews were difficult; not because the victims were outwardly emotional – they weren’t – but because they were formal, unnatural, things were lost in translation. Ramiz found it difficult to gauge their emotions; he couldn’t decipher which words they were stressing, the tone of what they were saying.
“I suspect they’ve all been deported now. They were all very far along the deportation process. They didn’t have anything to gain from telling me they were victims if they weren’t,” Ramiz says.
“[Huy] was going to be deported back to situation where he’ll be at risk of incarceration, which doesn’t sit well with me.”
What’s the problem?
The Modern Slavery Act includes a statutory defence for people forced to commit offences as a result of being a victim of modern slavery. But this often isn’t being followed, Ramiz’s research shows.
“Police are meant to be objective and look at the entirety of a situation,” he tells me. “The problem is, police see growers as criminals, and any investigations into modern slavery have been perfunctory at best.”
“When you give more of this information to legal advisers, you encourage more of a dialogue between them and grower of the grower's reality, and you’re more likely to illicit an account of what’s been happening.”
“There’s this idea they chose to be there, this binary perspective of these crimes,” Ramiz says. “But these individuals didn’t feel like they could leave, because they were threatened with extreme violence towards themselves and their families.”
If these cases were properly assessed, police would be much more thorough, Ramiz says. They’d gather evidence of the scene and the living circumstances of the individual, and question them over several hours.
They’d properly disclose information to the defence lawyer, and put a more informed, detailed account in the NIM. When this happens, victims’ futures could look very different to Huy, Vinh and Petrit's.
“Society would be looking to look after them,” Ramiz says, “Altering their immigration status and not just deporting them.”
Police should still arrest these victims, Ramiz says, because that’s often the only way they will engage with the criminal justice system.
“When we come across these crimes, the police should arrest that individual in the first instance for the incidence crime, otherwise they’d just walk away.”
But once you criminalise someone, it’s unlikely they’ll want to cooperate, says Philippa Southwell, a solicitor advocate specialising in representing victims of modern slavery in cannabis farms. She doesn't agree with College of Policing guidance, which states that police interviews should continue when evidence has emerged that the person arrested may also be a victim, before referring them to the NRM.
“Initial contact with the authorities is an important point because it gives you the opportunity to divert that person away from the criminal justice system as a suspect. Once they’ve been booked in and interviewed under caution and interrogated, to then say, ‘We now think you’re a victim, do you want to talk to us as a victim?', really doesn’t work.”
Failure to treat these victims as such is not limited to the police – modern slavery isn’t properly understood or analysed across the whole criminal justice system, including legal representatives, the police, prosecution and the courts, according to Ramiz and Southwell.
Southwell works on appeals, after victims have been convicted, which gives her access to materials from across law enforcement, including police and criminal solicitors.
“I can see the themes of what’s gone wrong. Law enforcement and defence solicitors are not asking the right questions,” she says.
“For law enforcement, the key failing is missing numerous signs when arresting a victim in a case like this that should give rise to an article 4 investigation,” which pertains to the European Court of Human Rights’ prohibition of slavery and forced labour.
The first police interview with the victim is crucial, as this is where the defence lawyer will advise the victim on what to say in the interview. However, there’s a long way to go before lawyers are properly trained to not look at these cases through a drugs lens, Southwell says. At the moment, she adds, they routinely advise victims to not give police the defence of duress, as it’s one of the most difficult defences to run.
“Victims of trafficking will routinely make one-line disclosures and answer the questions put to them, so if the defence lawyer doesn’t ask how long they’ve been here, what they ate, where they slept, they’re not going to volunteer that information,” Southwell says.
“I routinely see child victims who won’t make disclosures, but it’s a child locked in a cannabis farm, they’re malnourished, and it’s a multi-million pound operation,” she says. “Law enforcement don’t need to be specially trained to put two and two together to deal with this as modern slavery case.”
Victims' situations don’t necessarily improve when their case gets to court. Southwell says there’s also a lack of training on this matter within the judiciary.
“You see judges, even in their sentencing remarks, saying, ‘You were locked in, being abused’, yet they’re not saying they’re victims of human trafficking,” Southwell says.
“You see judges setting out ‘slavery’ in the sentencing remarks after a guilty plea; they may not use the words ‘slavery’ and ‘trafficking.’ but they’re describing it and conceding that’s the situation the victim was in.”
Why are these failures happening?
These modern slavery cases are complicated, Ramiz says, and often involve several overlapping crime types.
“It’s difficult for police, who deal with increasingly complex situations. They frame crime type along traditional lines, which is what’s happened with these situations.”
And because cannabis has been home-grown on an industrial scale in the UK for decades, the police have got used to framing growers as dealers, Ramiz says.
“Understanding that that’s not the case, to help police to reframe this in their minds, will take a long time.”
Police forces need more training, Ramiz says, so they stop placing the onus on growers to come forward as victims. He likens the situation in the UK at the moment to the gradual changes in approach that took place in police forces over the last 50 years towards victims of domestic abuse, who also don’t always see themselves as victims at first.
“In the 70s and 80s the police turned a blind eye to domestic abuse, but we’ve totally changed how we deal with that. Officers realised the situations victims are in, that being hit every day is their normality,” he says.
Change also needs public interest, however, and Ramiz is doubtful that there’s enough of it.
“Another challenge is how much society actually cares, because it’s not UK nationals who are being victimised. Especially in the current climate,” he says, avoiding the word ‘Brexit’.
But Ramiz is hopeful. He's encouraged by Sara Thornton, the UK's Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s response to his paper, which she described as a "welcome contribution to building an evidence-based approach to preventing modern slavery".
Ramiz draws his paper to a close by walking the reader down a narrow street in the heart of Florence, to the Accademia art gallery. There, he points out, are four unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo.
‘The slaves writhe amidst the hardship of their existence,’ he writes, ‘But owing to their unfinished state, they remain obscured by the rock from which they appear unable to free themselves.
‘An observer has an impression of the individual, yet not the entire human―perhaps emblematic of the current state of modern slavery in the UK, with so much still to be learned.’
*Accounts based on interviews conducted by Adam Ramiz