The lost women of the drug trade

While the problem of drug mules entering the UK is not a new one, there have been some developments towards a more sustainable and effective approach. With the “Sentencing Advisory Panel” recommending handing out shorter custodial sentences for drugs offenders, a step is certainly being taken in the right direction. However, by simply shortening sentences, the judicial system isn’t really grappling with the root causes of the problem and there is still very little appreciation of the harm done to the individuals involved. Throughout the last decade, the female U.K. prison population had doubled and is still rising. Official statistics show that upwards of 60% of foreign national female prisoners have committed drug offences, mainly drug trafficking and are almost always first time offenders from the poorest countries in the world, with the majority coming from Jamaica and Nigeria.

Drug mules are either made to transport the drugs in their luggage or they are made to ingest packets of drugs wrapped in plastic, sometimes as many as 100 packets often amounting to around 1kg or more. Upon successful delivery in the UK, they may expect to be paid a few thousand pounds upon completing delivery. However, the dangers to carriers who ingest the drugs are often far greater than getting caught ending up in prison. If the one of the packets they have swallowed opens, they have a very high risk of serious illness or death from the vast quantities of the drug that will be absorbed through their stomach

Despite the extreme dangers they face, the reason young women become drug mules is a relatively simple one. It is almost always due to situations of extreme desperation and poverty. More often than not, they are single mothers who have a number of dependent family members to support and have become indebted in some way with little prospect of being able to pay their debts. In most cases they have never taken drugs and will never have left their own country let alone visited the country they are being sent to and have little comprehension of English or how the U.K’s judicial system operates. Olga Heaven, Director and founding member of Hibiscus, a charity that advocates the rights of foreign national women in UK prisons, highlights that it is the desperation, lack of choices, and ignorance of the consequences, that are the main reason hundreds of foreign women end up in UK prisons every year at great cost to the British taxpayer
The way our judicial system deals with this problem is clearly failing. A statement by the Commons Select Committee on home affairs released in March highlighted how cocaine use in the UK is continuing to grow, and as such one can expect this method of smuggling to continue. The whole conception of drug mules suggests they are faceless, replaceable individuals, and in most cases are simply replaced by those organising the operation if they are caught. Incarcerating these women for lengthy sentences, (in most cases between 6-8 years) has been shown to have little impact on the large global networks sending these women to the UK.

With cocaine use continuing to rise in the UK, it is safe to assume that this will remain a recurring problem and as such, needs a more effective solution than simply imprisoning those at the bottom  which demonises the weakest and most vulnerable while those at the top of the vast criminal networks remain in positions of vast wealth power. Education based approaches in the countries where the majority of these women come from would surely be a more effective measure. It would stop women making the decision to become drug mules, result in far less pointless incarcerations and therefore also save vast sums of taxpayers’ money.