Hidden Scottish farms which cultivate cannabis on an industrial scale are tended by children, trafficked to this country and held against their will in conditions of slavery. For many recreational cannabis users in Scotland, this will come as a shocking and inconvenient truth, but it is happening now and on wider scale than you might think.
When you think of trafficking, you probably think of sex workers, or domestic servitude: people duped into signing up to a new life in the UK and then pressed into service against their will on arrival. This is of course true, but there is another aspect to this story and one that will make uncomfortable reading for many people who enjoy cannabis and believe it to be harmless to themselves and the world around them.
The Scottish Guardianship Service, run in partnership by Aberlour and the Scottish Refugee Council, works with unaccompanied asylum seeking children and young people and child victims of trafficking. It exists to support them through the complex asylum and trafficking processes, whilst building skills, confidence and social networks. Guardians will help these young people to understand and participate in the complex processes they find themselves in, to find their feet and to come to terms with some of the trauma they may have experienced prior to and during their journey to the UK.
Each year between 10 and 15 trafficked children, usually from Vietnam, come through the doors of the Guardianship service as a direct result of the cannabis trade in Scotland. They have been trafficked to the UK to work in secret indoor farms in and around Glasgow. On arrival in Britain they are locked up in converted tenement flats and forced, under conditions of slavery, to tend cannabis crops in order to service the ‘debt owed’ for their transportation for the UK. In many cases they will be unable to leave the premises and may be subjected to other forms of abuse and maltreatment.
Those young people like this who make it to the Guardianship service have either escaped or are brought to us by the police following a raid on a farm. Without the provision of support there is a significant risk that these young people will be scooped up by their handlers and ‘re-trafficked’. This is a multi-faceted problem about which little is known but which demands attention from Scotland’s decision makers and from the general public, particularly those who currently supply the demand to Scotland’s cannabis trade.
The Scottish Parliament is preparing to consider new legislation to tackle the spectre of people trafficking in Scotland and this is very welcome, but it must cover all aspects of this abhorrent subject. We are finally and belatedly waking up to the fact that trafficking isn’t a problem confined to ‘backward’, developing countries in the third world, or to the south coast entry points of the UK border. People are trafficked to supply a demand in Scotland every week and fighting this problem is not just the responsibility of our politicians or our criminal justice services: Our media need to understand and promote this new and shocking dimension to the subject; whilst private citizens who use cannabis must be alerted to the dark underbelly of the trade and their complicity to it.
Scotland’s Lord Advocate has recently stated, in the context of the forthcoming trafficking Bill, that those who have been trafficked will not be criminalised for activity that they have been forced into. We need to make better use and build awareness of the National Referral Mechanism, which gives suspected victims of trafficking protection, support and access to services. To this end, social workers and frontline police officers require further training in how to identify victims of trafficking and what to do if trafficking is suspected in any context.
Trafficking children for cannabis cultivation is a form of child abuse, pure and simple. We need to work together to end it now.