VULNERABLE Vietnamese children are being trafficked to Edinburgh to work as modern-day slaves in record numbers, an Evening News investigation reveals today.
16 teenagers have been found at Edinburgh Airport or wandering the streets – nearly doubling the number of unaccompanied overseas children in care.
The youngsters are understood to have been trafficked by gangs via Russia to work in cannabis farms and nail bars.
“Half of the unaccompanied children come from one area, which is new and not our experience before,” said Labour councillor Gordon Munro.
“What flights are they coming in on? Where are they starting from? What local connections are bringing them to Edinburgh, of all places?”
The 16 Vietnamese victims have swollen the number of overseas children in care to 33 – more than ten times the figure of previous years.
Cllr Munro said traffickers posed a problem to Edinburgh as well to children, with the 16 posing a potential extra yearly care bill of up to £1 million. He called for a “multi-agency approach” to tackle the problem, in addition to the city’s duty of care to unaccompanied children.
“I think the UK Government has to be involved as well, if these children are being trafficked from abroad,” he added.
Recent high-profile cases include raids on more than 280 nail bars in Edinburgh, London and Cardiff last December in a trafficking crackdown that led to 97 arrests.
And last September, gangster Hong Chuong Dang, 44, was jailed for a year for trafficking migrants to work in his Las Vegas Nail Bar, Bathgate.
The UK’s anti-slavery tsar Kevin Hyland last week called for tighter regulation of nail bars to tackle the exploitation of girls and women trafficked from Vietnam.
His report found that traffickers charge £10,000 to £33,000 to smuggle people from Vietnam to Britain.
More than half of victims are children and most commonly end up in cannabis cultivation or nail bars, but many are also sexually exploited, according to the report.
A National Crime Agency study in 2014 revealed nearly three-quarters of trafficking victims forced into criminal activities including cannabis cultivation were Vietnamese.
Latest official figures from the National Referral Mechanism reveal Vietnam was the joint top overseas country of origin for trafficked children to the UK last year.
Of the 227 under-18s from Vietnam found in the UK, more than half, 122, were forced to work as slaves. More worrying still, a report by anti-child trafficking charity ECPAT UK found that Vietnamese children were the most likely to go missing and return to traffickers once rescued.
Sickeningly, child victims are often brainwashed to want to flee back to their traffickers even after being rescued.
The report included the case of a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl trafficked to the UK through Russia.
She was rescued and placed with a foster family only to go missing in the middle of the night. A smuggled mobile phone was later found in her belongings.
The Evening News has been told of cases where trafficked children have mobile phone SIM cards stitched into their clothing so they can contact traffickers when rescued.
A study of migrant routes from north Vietnam this year found Russia, with its significant Vietnamese diaspora, to be a typical stopover on the way to the UK.
Chloe Setter, of ECPAT, said gangs mainly target children and teenage boys to be trafficked to the UK.
“These are young people who often don’t have documents to show what age they are, which when contested can be a traumatic experience.
“These children can also go missing from care, while there’s been no successful conviction to date of an organised crime gang trafficking children to work in cannabis farms.
“That means crime gangs work with impunity while their victims are punished.”
Ms Setter praised work by the Lord Advocate in a bid to get tough with traffickers in Scotland and the Scottish Guardianship Service in helping victims cope with the culture shock.
The 16 Vietnamese children are understood to be living in care homes, with foster family placements difficult as most speak little or no English.
None of them has the right to live in the UK, meaning they must apply to the UK Visas and Immigration office, part of the Home Office, for permission to stay.
Cllr Alison Dickie, vice- convener of education, children and families, said: “As a local authority we have a duty of care to look after any child when their parent or carer cannot be identified. This includes children who arrive unaccompanied in Edinburgh.
“We put in place all appropriate supports for these young people, including education, health care and accommodation.”
Detective Superintendent Stuart Houston from the Specialist Crime Division said: “We are aware of child victims of human trafficking being encountered in Edinburgh and other areas of Scotland.
“This has included victims from Vietnam and we continue to work alongside our relevant partner agencies to provide these victims with all the necessary support they require.
“Tackling human trafficking is a priority for Police Scotland. It is challenging and complex to investigate. Trafficking is hidden and individuals often don’t see themselves as victims, which is why we will proactively seek to identify them.
“We are determined to improve the intelligence picture in order to gain a better understanding of trafficking in Scotland and the organised crime groups who are involved.
“Trafficking is exploitation and victimisation of vulnerable people, which is unacceptable.”
Last month, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson launched a campaign to raise awareness of people trafficking, highlighting the cities, towns and villages across Scotland where the gangs had operated.
Anyone with suspicions of people trafficking can contact police on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.