Graham O’Neill: Are slaves being criminalised in Scotland?

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YESTERDAY, Jenny Marra MSP, was brave, right, and insightful to make explicit the possibility that young people “convicted of drug offences after being trafficked into this country to work on drug farms, [are being] incarcerated in our prisons tonight”.

This was a timely intervention as, while the recent convictions of Ivan Balog, Helena Kulova, and

Renata Kulova in Dundee Sheriff Court for human trafficking are welcome, it is only the

second successful prosecution in Scotland since 2003.

The Dundee success reflects our shared will to criminalise slavery; but as Ms Marra correctly implied,

are we unconsciously and in pursuit of our own war against cannabis, also criminalising slaves?

It is right that Scottish policing has prioritised the disruption and punishment of organised criminal cannabis farming. The national Operation League specifically targets organised crime groups from South East Asia and is effective in its own terms, disrupting hundreds of illegal cannabis farms while seizing profit.

However, Ms Marra has identified that there may be a back story here. Are we unintentionally criminalising vulnerable individuals as cannabis ‘gardeners’ when they in fact are victims of human trafficking and slavery?

Clear evidence is always hard to get with private, abusive crime: we know that from

our experiences with child abuse, domestic violence, or disability harassment. So, our criminal justice

front line must draw on this reservoir of experience and be relentlessly proactive, open-minded,

and, initially, have a presumption for the victim.

And, the evidence is mounting that slavery is indeed part of the organised criminal cannabis trade in

Scotland and the UK: since 2011, a number of groups including the Child Online and Exploitation Centre have referred or evidenced human trafficking in cannabis.

Indeed, the SCDEA’s national intelligence assessment on human trafficking in November 2011 stated

that Chinese and Vietnamese with no leave to remain are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.

This compares unfavourably to the rest of the UK on raising awareness at the criminal justice frontline so the link is made and victims may be identified when raiding cannabis farms.

Identifying the signs of human trafficking matter greatly for all unidentified victims.

Prosecuting authorities across the UK are accustomed to making decisions on whether to prosecute on the best evidence and, more broadly, what is in the public interest. Rightly, the COPFS’ public guidance on human trafficking lists considerations relevant to deciding whether

one is a credible trafficking victim and a presumption against prosecution for those so regarded.

While blanket immunity would be a step too far, the bar must be set pretty high for

deeming it in the public interest to prosecute a credible victim of trafficking for an offence they

were compelled to commit. Decisions on prosecutions should be sensitive to the facts but also intelligence gathered from instances of trafficked exploitation in organised criminal cannabis farming.

Criminalising victims drastically reduces access to evidence to get at the real orchestrators of exploitation.

Prevention is better than cure. Anything less means often vulnerable people suffering the manifest injustice of triple victimisation: as victims of trafficking; as victims because they have not been identified by the authorities as such; and finally victimised as criminals for acts they were compelled to commit.

In celebrating the Dundee conviction, we need to ensure not only we get more, but also not to practice

a juxtaposition of injustice that, rightly, criminalises slavery but, wrongly, criminalises slaves too.

That is why Ms Marra’s intervention yesterday and, I hope, a professional response by the Scottish

Government and our criminal justice agencies to it are so very important.

• Graham O’Neill is lead researcher in Scotland for the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group. He is writing in a personal capacity