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The problem of drug mules entering the UK is treated like a simple one, with a simple solution. People enter the country with drugs – mainly cocaine or heroin – either in their luggage or swallowed, encased. They are caught by the UK Border Agency when their flights land. They are put in jail to the cost of the British taxpayer, receiving an average sentence of ten years.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, one in five women in the UK’s jails are foreigners; this is compared to the average of 14% for both genders given by the Home Office. Up to 60% of these women are serving sentences for drug-related offences. Most of them are drug mules.

The reasons for women choosing to smuggle drugs vary. The main one is, obviously, poverty: they are told by local drug organisers that if they make a trip to London, they can earn enough to pay back their debts to their landlords, to buy clothes and food for their children, to get health treatment. Simple problems like diabetes or hypertension can be hard to treat if you are on a low income and from a country with no semblance of a welfare state. Nearly all of these women, especially from the Caribbean and west Africa, are single, perhaps with two or three “baby fathers”. They normally have low levels of education.

Olga Heaven, from the charity Hibiscus, the female prisoners welfare project, says that most of these women have never touched drugs. A lot of them have never even travelled before. Whatever way you look at it, ignorant women motivated by desperation will of course agree to making the trip.

Originally set up to deal with the high numbers of Nigerian women ending up in UK jails, Hibiscus acts as a response for the lack of services for women in prison, and argues for a different approach to simply locking up ignorant women for several years. “We believe that if the woman is only a mule and has played no part in the international drug trade as such – i.e., she’s not an organiser – then she shouldn’t be given more than a three-year sentence,” Heaven says. “The drugs should be taken from her, and she should be sent back.”

A large part of Hibiscus’s work is providing education abroad, to prevent women coming here in the first place. Its film Eva Goes to Foreign, which is available in different languages, resulted in a remarkable reduction in drug mules coming from Jamaica, Ghana and Nigeria in the last two years. The charity wants funding for more education programmes in eastern Europe, South Africa and St Lucia – new hotspots for female drug mules, according to Heaven, whose numbers will rise as the economic crisis continues.

But the charity is struggling to raise the funding, despite the obvious and immediate cost benefits the UK prison system would make. Preventing five drug mules coming into the UK through education would save taxpayers half a million pounds a year. When the media gets hold of the fact that there are 11,000 foreign nationals in British prisons, and demands for all of these people to be deported, then that is not good publicity for the government. A deportation drive means these women will be going back to the same communities where they were convinced to become smugglers in the first place. Heaven says nearly all of them will be back.