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Aus: international students lured into cannabis “crop sitting”

A spate of convictions has revealed an increasing number of international students in Australia are being exploited and lured into the illicit drugs trade through “crop sitting” to overcome financial difficulties.

Seven students have been convicted of drug offences in Victoria since October 2017. Photo: Shane RounceSeven students have been convicted of drug offences in Victoria since October 2017. Photo: Shane Rounce

22 international students faced court on crop sitting charges in Victoria in 2017

Since October 2017, seven current and former international students, all from Vietnam, were convicted of “crop sitting” cannabis plants in Victoria state. In total, 22 students faced trial on similar charges in 2017.

According to Victorian court documents, large criminal syndicates set up houses with equipment needed to cultivate cannabis plants and then recruited students to maintain the plants and live within the dwellings to maintain the appearance of regular occupancy.

“This is a very prevalent crime where young people are often targeted by criminal syndicates and exploited”

Many of those charged with cultivating cannabis for profit cited significant financial stress while in Australia but were paid relatively small sums of money – as little as $150 for a weekend.

ISANA president Bronwyn Gilson said it was common for students to fall into financial difficulties once in Australia, adding she did not believe the financial requirements required for a study visa were at fault.

“Most students who fall into a vulnerable situation do so after arriving, normally through no fault of their own,” she said.

“It can be that those supporting the student financially, usually family members, may lose their job or their business falls on hard times and thus the student needs to seek employment or increase their hours of work. These students then become a target for unscrupulous people who offer them an immediate way out of their financial problems.”

In one case from 25 January this year, Thanh Chau said he obtained a student visa in November 2013 with the dual goals of studying business management at Holmes Institute and using in-study work rights to support his family back in Vietnam, after his parents heard of “supposedly very high wages” in Australia.

After failing to find employment, and then being underpaid working at a strawberry farm and later a butcher, Chau’s mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and the area in which he grew up was hit by an environmental disaster, destroying its fishing industry and putting further pressures on him to send money home.

Chau said he was then approached by one operator to tend to a crop in Melbourne’s East Cranbourne, for which he received $3,000, most of which went back to his parents.

“I accept the difficult circumstances underlying and surrounding this offending,” Judge Gaynor said in sentencing.

“That is, the unrealistic dreams that accompanied your arrival in Australia, your failure to find work – whereby you could appropriately support yourself, financial pressures upon… you in relation to your [family] and the duties and obligations you felt towards them, given the sacrifices they had made to send you to Australia in the first place.”

Chau was sentenced to nine-months for cultivating a commercial quantity of marijuana, with time served, and is expected to be deported back to Vietnam once released from prison.

According to Judge Lawson, criminal syndicates are becoming more aware of the pressures placed on international students and targeting them.

“It would be helpful if international students had access to small short-term, interest-free loans via their provider”

“This is, unfortunately, a very prevalent crime where young people are often targeted by criminal syndicates and exploited because of their vulnerable immigration status and they are recruited to crop sit,” she said.

But while Judge Lawson and others have acknowledged vulnerabilities and exploitation around international students, they have maintained the need for harsh punishments as a deterrent.

“Courts must send a message to other people who are in your position who may be attracted to undertaking this sort of work to make quick money, that if you are caught by the police for this sort of criminal offending, then you will face stern punishment and [jail] is likely,” she told one defendant.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA, said providers needed to ensure students were fully aware of the potential consequences that face them if they chose to undertake illegal activity.

“Education providers need to ensure that in the orientation materials and orientation program that they provide to newly arrived international students that some of these potentially exploitative and illegal activities… are explained fully and the consequences of a student putting their foot wrong are explained in no uncertain detail,” he said.

“When students come to any new country, they must abide by the laws of the land. As many young Australians have discovered when they’ve gone to Indonesia and chosen to use drugs. There is no sort of excuse for this behaviour.”

Gilson, meanwhile, said better services for students who find themselves in dire situations could help to prevent students resorting to the drug trade for money.

“It would be helpful if international students had access to small short-term, interest-free loans via their provider, supported by the Government,” she said.

A recent survey of migrant workers, including international students, found 40% of students were exploited in the workforce, 73% of which were aware that they were being exploited.

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