LONDON — Until this week, Mo Farah was a four-time Olympic champion winding down his hugely successful career as a long-distance runner. Now he’s an icon for another reason: He is the most prominent person to come forward as a victim of people trafficking.
Farah’s decision to tell the story of how he was brought to Britain illegally as a child and forced to work as a domestic servant has given a face to the often nameless victims of modern slavery, crime victims who many times are dismissed as “illegal” immigrants.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a case in British public life where somebody so familiar to the British public … reveals how dark, how difficult, how complex his back story is,” said Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a nonpartisan think tank on identity and immigration. “We rarely have the voices and faces of people trafficked, but for it to be one of the most familiar public figures of Britain in this century is truly extraordinary.”
Farah’s revelations have the potential to create the safe space necessary for other trafficking victims to seek help, just as entertainers and athletes who came out as homosexual bolstered the gay rights movement, Katwala said. They will also put pressure on authorities to ensure that those who are exploited by traffickers are treated as victims, not criminals to be deported.
Farah, 39, said he decided to speak out about his experience to challenge public perceptions of trafficking and modern slavery.
His story, which has resonated globally, comes as conflict, climate change and economic collapse displace record numbers of people around the world, pushing more and more migrants into the hands of gangs who smuggle them into Britain, the European Union and the U.S.
Those who can afford it pay thousands of dollars to reach countries where they hope to find jobs and security. Others fall prey to criminals who force them into sex work, drug crimes and domestic servitude.
More than 10,000 people were referred to British authorities as possible victims of modern slavery in 2020, up from 2,340 in 2014, according to a report from the Home Office, the government agency responsible for border enforcement.
Britain has struggled to respond to this complex environment, with the government opening its doors to refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine in recent months while proposing to deport “illegal” immigrants from other countries who are seeking asylum to Rwanda. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the Rwanda plan will break the business model of criminals who smuggle people across the English Channel in small boats, immigrant advocates say the plan is illegal and inhumane.
Rob McNeil, deputy directory of The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said Farah’s story is unlikely to change U.K. policy on its own, but it helps shift the debate by humanizing the abstract idea of an “illegal immigrant.”
“Policy narratives about irregular migrants typically deal with them as a sort of homogenous group of ‘wrongdoers’ and a problem to be solved, rather than individuals at risk,” he said. “A softening of the U.K.’s rhetoric and policy toward irregular arrivals seems likely only if the wider debate becomes more focused on the people who are being targeted, rather than the policy failures they represent.”
In a documentary broadcast this week by the BBC, Farah said his real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin and he was born in Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia ravaged by war during his childhood.
He said he was 8 or 9 years old and living in neighboring Djibouti when a woman he didn’t know brought him to Britain using fake travel documents that included his picture alongside the name Mohammed Farah, which became his identity.
Farah said he was excited because he’d never been on a plane and thought he was going to Europe to live with relatives. Instead, the woman took him to an apartment in west London, tore up a piece of paper that contained his relatives’ contact details and forced him to care for her children, Farah said. He wasn’t allowed to go to school until he was 12.
It was then that Farah’s talent as a runner helped him escape his life of servitude. Farah said he confided in a physical education teacher who arranged for him to live with another family from Somalia.
After that, he bottled up his emotions and kept the truth about his early life secret. He described the wave of support following the documentary as “incredible.”
“It has taken me a long time to come to this, but I’m glad I’ve made this documentary to show people the reality of what really happened to me as a child,” he told the BBC in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
London’s Metropolitan Police Service said it was “assessing” the information raised in the documentary.
Charity workers, lawyers and others who help victims of modern slavery praised Farah’s courage in coming forward and said the publicity will help bring humanity to the debate. Many victims, they say, struggle for years to escape and overcome the trauma caused by their exploitation.
“To know that there is someone, as tragic as it is, who has gone through it, come through, and been able to be successful in his chosen field and to speak from lived experience is an immensely important thing,” said Ryna Sherazi, director of fundraising and communications at Anti-Slavery International, a charity that works to eliminate slavery around the world.
Until this week, Farah had said he came to Britain as a refugee with his family. That is the story he told U.K. immigration officials when he became a citizen in 2000 at the age of 17.
He went on to represent Great Britain at three Olympic Games, winning gold in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs in both 2012 and 2016. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017.
Despite his fame, Farah said he feared he would be deported if he told the truth about how he came to Britain. He expressed relief that after the documentary aired, the Home Office pledged not to take action against him.
Nando Sigona, an expert on migration at the University of Birmingham, put the Home Office’s “mild reaction” down to the fact that the ruling Conservative Party is in the middle of a leadership election.
“At this point, it is unclear if the Mo Farah case will lead to something good for others,” Sigona said. “The risk is that it remains a story that generates sympathy only because it involves an exceptionally talented person.’’
The documentary ends with Farah still wondering why he was brought to the U.K. Back in Africa, his mother tells him she never agreed for him to travel to England and only lost touch because of war and poor communications in her homeland.
But as Farah reveals his plan to come clean about his past, his mother offers unconditional support.
“Lying is a sin,” she tells him.
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