INCREASING numbers of illegal immigrants are being trafficked to Bolton by criminal gangs who use them to act as gardeners in cannabis farms.

Lured to the UK from impoverished countries with the promise of work in the construction industry, many find the dream of being able to provide for their families ends behind prison bars.

After appearing at Bolton Crown Court, Albanian Refit Xhaxho is beginning his second spell in a British prison, jailed for 14 months by Judge Graham Smith.

After being released from jail following a nine month prison sentence for producing cannabis in Manchester, the 43-year-old was found at a hostel in Birmingham by a drugs gang and made to come to Bolton to act as a gardener again in order to repay the “debt” he incurred to those who transported him into the country.

“So far as I am concerned this is a depressingly familiar scenario,” said Judge Smith.

“It is the third or fourth case I have had in the last month involving an illegal immigrant who is found looking after what is called a cannabis farm in a converted residential property.”

The court heard how police raided a property in Tavistock Road, Deane on August 8 and found it packed with maturing cannabis plants ­— 100 on the ground floor and a further 100 on the first floor, producing 79.8kg of the drug.

Xhaxho was arrested at the scene and admitted producing cannabis.

He does not speak English and appeared via a video link from Forest Bank prison, weeping as Mark Friend, defending, appealed for an “element of mercy” from the court for Xhaxho, who was trafficked into the country in 2018.

“It’s very rarely those in power who are found living in such properties,” said Mr Friend. “Common sense and logic tells us that it is those at the bottom end of the hierarchy who fulfill such roles, taking all the risks.”

Tracy Haslam, from Bolton solicitors AFG Law, says such cases are becoming much more common.

“I went from having none and in the last six weeks I have had five,” said Ms Haslam, who added that other solicitors’ firms will have also seen increases.

“At this moment in time Albania is the country most are from,” she said

“They are told they can get a job in construction in order to support their families back home. They are often from poor villages, there’s unemployment and they are approached by gangs - they don’t know they are gangs at the time, they just think they can get them to the UK.

“They are told they will be given a job in construction to pay their fare but when they arrive here they are taken to a house. They don’t speak very good English, they are given food and some cash, their passports are withheld from them and then they are told to water the plants.

“They see no way out really. The police are aware of it and the justice system and immigration is aware of it.”

She added that many “gardeners” do not realise that they can be regarded as victims of modern slavery and there is a support network available to them.

Anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice says such cases are becoming commonplace in cities and towns throughout the UK.

The charity’s UK and Europe Programme Director Paul McAnulty says referrals for modern slavery are “very much on the increase”.

He added: “Criminals are diversifying their revenue streams and see this as a more lucrative and less risky means of generating income than drug importation.

“Traffickers control their victims through threat of and actual violence and often threaten the lives of their victims’ families in order to ensure compliance.

“They callously and manipulatively condition their victims into believing that this is their reality now and that they have no hope to escape it, perpetuating a misbelief that they will be arrested or deported if they present themselves to authorities, isolating them from everybody who cares about them.

“They are often held in conditions that are unfit for humans or animals, kept in sheds, lofts and outbuildings or forced to share an overcrowded bedroom with other victims which is laden with dirty mattresses and prevented from having use of running water and often going without food.

“One victim we have encountered was forced to use a plastic carrier bag as his toilet.”

Hope for Justice has rescued more than 800 victims of modern slavery, many of whom are from Albania and used for begging, sexual exploitation or forced to work.

“They are seen as commodity by their exploiters – who see them only in terms of what services they can elicit from them for their own financial betterment,” said Mr McAnulty.