After decades spent battling an influx of heroin, some of Scotland’s top cops are striving to get to grips with another troubling import — modern-day slaves from Vietnam.
Better known for its illicit trade in drugs than people, Scotland has set its sights on slave masters and is stepping up efforts to stamp out the crime as it uncovers more victims.
Vietnam is the main hotbed, with many young people making tortuous journeys through Russia and Europe, having paid thousands of pounds for the promise of a decent job in Britain.
However, the reality is bleak. Vietnamese arrivals often end up enslaved in nail bars and cannabis farms, or forced to sell sex — trapped in a global trade thought to ensnare 40 million people and generate US$150 billion in annual profits for traffickers.
While many are exploited in plain sight, prostituting on the streets or working in salons, Scottish police are struggling to secure justice as few people want to come forward or speak out.
“It is tough to gain trust ... to get the full picture the first time from victims who can be wary of the police,” detective inspector Brian Gallagher said. “Vietnamese communities ... can be insular in our towns and cities, which traffickers encourage.”
“We need to educate police officers to be aware of the fact that there might be this hidden crime lurking under the surface, behind closed doors and disguised by other crimes,” he said at the Scottish human trafficking squad’s headquarters in Glasgow.
Suspected trafficking cases in Scotland last year surged to 213, up from 150 in 2016, with about half of all potential victims coming from Vietnam — by far the main country of origin.
Britain is sold as the promised land to many Vietnamese — who travel thousands of kilometers by foot, boat and truck over many months — with northern France still a common gateway, despite a crackdown on migrants and smugglers around Calais port.
Many people are then moved up through England and over the border into Scotland, but officials have said some Vietnamese women have arrived via Scandinavia and Northern Ireland, and police expect other routes to emerge as traffickers adapt and evolve.
No matter how many hurdles stand before them or how many warnings they receive, the lure of wealth in the West is too strong to resist for many young Vietnamese, said Mimi Vu of the Pacific Links Foundation, a US-based anti-trafficking charity.
“It is so hard to tackle the story spun by the traffickers and it’s all about the money,” Vu, who spends much of her time raising awareness in Vietnam, said during a visit to Glasgow.
“It’s their promise of the pot of gold that awaits in the UK versus our warning of abuse and slavery,” she said, adding that advising people in Vietnam about rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain and uncertainty over Brexit has so far proved futile.
Hoping to coax more slaves out of hiding, Scottish police chiefs are training officers to spot the crime, working with charities to help survivors during investigations and pushing prosecutors to utilize a new law that came into force in 2016.
Similar to Britain’s landmark 2015 legislation, Scotland’s law threatens traffickers with life imprisonment, restricts the movement of suspected slave masters and ensures support for those who are rescued — from housing and healthcare to legal aid.
Only a handful of people have been convicted under the law, but police expect a gradual rise as more witnesses and victims are encouraged to testify — and prosecutors get up to speed.
“Trafficking and exploitation are an abuse of human rights,” Scottish Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf said in e-mailed comments.
“Our approach places a strong emphasis on victims’ needs,” he said, adding that the government had invested more than ￡3 million (US$3.9 million) in support services through 2021.
However, fears of arrest and deportation or retribution against relatives back home by traffickers mean that many Vietnamese slaves in Scotland are likely to remain in the shadows, charities have said.
More and more Vietnamese ex-child slaves across Britain are being denied refugee status after turning 18 — about 50 last year compared with 54 over the previous three years — government data obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed.
Many of these youngsters are deported after serving jail sentences for crimes they were forced to commit in captivity — like drug offenses on cannabis farms — lawyers have said.
“Young Vietnamese trafficking victims are being criminalized instead of being seen as victims of a crime,” said Debbie Beadle, a program director at anti-slavery charity ECPAT UK.
Back at the police headquarters, the anti-slavery squad cracked jokes with Vu while comparing Scottish and Vietnamese traits — “both good hustlers” — and listened earnestly as she taught them basic phrases in her mother tongue.
As well as aiming to gain insight and be more sensitive to the customs and culture of the foreign slaves holed up across Scotland — from big cities to craggy island outposts — police are also trying to boost public awareness and change attitudes.
More than half of Scots surveyed by the government last year said they did not believe trafficking was an issue in their area — despite it occurring in 27 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
However, the crime is growing and evolving across Britain, which is home to at least 136,000 modern-day slaves — according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation — a figure about 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate.
“People are being treated like commodities,” Gallagher said, switching from back-and-forth banter to a business-like manner.
“We want to change the public’s mindset so that they see modern slavery as unacceptable — much like what has happened with attitudes toward drink driving and domestic violence,” he said.
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