Thousands of children trafficked to Britain from Vietnam are being abused and exploited while traveling through Europe as governments pass the buck on their protection amid growing anti-immigration sentiment, three charities said on Thursday.
Vietnamese children destined for Britain are often forced to work - from cultivating cannabis to painting nails - or sold for sex to pay off debts to their traffickers as they are taken through Europe, the anti-slavery groups said in a report.
As Britain uncovers rising numbers of suspected child slaves from Vietnam, European nations are failing to spot or protect them, instead placing responsibility on other states, said Anti-Slavery International, ECPAT UK and Pacific Links Foundation.
“The extent of abuse children trafficked from Vietnam to Europe suffer is shocking,” said Jasmine O’Connor, chief executive of Britain-based charity Anti-Slavery International.
“By the time they arrive in the United Kingdom, the vast majority have been mercilessly exploited along the way.”
Vietnam is consistently one of the top source countries for modern slaves in Britain - at least 3,187 suspected Vietnamese victims have been identified since 2009, official data shows.
About 362 possible child victims from Vietnam were uncovered in Britain in 2017 - up more than a third on 2016.
European states must treat such children crossing their borders as victims - rather than criminals or illegal migrants - and stop them from “slipping through the net,” the report said.
Britain is sold as the promised land to many Vietnamese, who pay traffickers large sums of money and travel thousands of miles across Europe by foot, boat and lorry over several months.
Children are typically controlled by the debt owed to their traffickers - sometimes as much as 30,000 pounds ($40,000) - for the cost of their travel and the supposed arrangement of a good job in Britain, according to the research.
Yet such jobs often fail to materialize and children are instead forced to work in abusive conditions to clear the debts, and are beaten by traffickers, the charities said in the report.
“Under international law, states have a duty to protect children from trafficking and exploitation,” said Debbie Beadle, director of programs at anti-child trafficking group ECPAT UK.
“It’s simply not acceptable for states to regard trafficked Vietnamese children as another country’s problem.”
Authorities in Europe view the trafficking of Vietnamese as an issue to be dealt with by Britain as the destination country, while there is a lack of cooperation among various actors both within and between nations to tackle the trend, the report said.
“There is often a shrug of the shoulders ... an attitude that Vietnamese communities are closed off and hard to crack therefore ‘we can’t do anything about it’,” said Mimi Vu of Pacific Links Foundation, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking charity.
“Preventing people leaving Vietnam is always the priority, but European countries must do more to stop trafficking and exploitation along the way,” Vu, who has visited Vietnamese communities across Europe, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.