Today’s news that three children from Vietnam have had their convictions quashed after appeal, though a brilliant step in the right direction, sheds light on the reality of modern slavery in the UK and reflects the crucial need for a better understanding of this crime and its victims. The children, who had been trafficked into the UK and forced to grow cannabis in one of the UK’s thousands of cannabis farms, were arrested for drugs offences and imprisoned instead of being recognised as victims of a crime. At the appeal, these convictions were thrown out, demonstrating encouraging but rare insight into the complexities of human trafficking and modern slavery.
Vietnam is one of the most frequent source countries for children trafficked into the UK and enslaved behind closed doors. The exploiters of these children draw on their vulnerability and ignorance about the UK and its laws. In one case relayed to the CSJ during our 20-month review, It Happens Here, a Vietnamese child who was found in a cannabis farm did not even know which country he was in. For other children, they or their families are threatened with violence and are so terrified they will say nothing about the abuse they have suffered. This silence, coupled with widespread lack of awareness among law enforcement agencies, has led to an appalling reality whereby children who have been enslaved are then being imprisoned. One social worker told the CSJ of a boy he visited in a Young Offenders Institution: within five minutes of meeting him in his cell, I thought ‘this is insane; I can’t believe this hasn’t been picked up before’. The pressure on frontline agencies is immense, but this does not excuse the gross miscarriage of justice that today’s appeal verdict highlighted so clearly.
As part of our headline recommendation that the UK pass a new Modern Slavery Act, we make clear the need for a policy of non-prosecution for victims who have committed a crime as a direct result of their enslavement. Though this principle is already enshrined in a recent European Directive, its direct effect is all too rarely felt in the UK. There is great need for a clear outline of the responsibilities of the criminal justice system in this area. This would create a clear understanding that in each case a potential victim of modern slavery deserves to have their status as a victim considered, and the appropriate protections given.
Whilst today’s verdict is a beacon of good news and a sign that progress is being made, the fact that these children were imprisoned in the first place is sobering, and one which should cause politicians, policy makers and those on the frontline to consider the role they can and must play in ensuring that victims of slavery are not only identified, but protected and given help to rebuild their lives.