Sir Mo Farah CBE has opened up about his experience of human trafficking as a 9-year-old boy.
Mohamed Farah, birth name Hussein Abdi Kahin was taken from his home in Somaliland, brought to the UK and forced into a situation of domestic servitude for three years before he was supported out of exploitation by his then PE teacher at the school he attended. Sir Mo was then supported to gain British citizenship under the name Mohamed Farah and has lived with this painful secret ever since, despite his tremendous success as an Olympian, sportsman and public figure.
Human trafficking is a term many of us will know in some form or another. Most of us will have heard the term trafficking in the context of blockbuster movies such as Taken starring Liam Neilson or Acts of Violence starring Bruce Willis. These stories often include a much beloved protagonist fighting for justice and the freedom of the victim in an exciting 90 minutes of action, car chases and death-defying stunts culminating normally in the rescue of the victim and the hero’s quest for justice complete.
You may have even seen one of the many TV dramas about the trafficking of people from distant countries – often for sexual exploitation – or the stories of cases of child exploitation here in the UK such as ‘Three Girls’ and ‘Top Boy’. Whilst as entertaining these films are or as informative these dramas intend to be, there is undoubtedly a detachment from our own realities. This form of media does little to truly connect us to these issues on a personal level. It is almost too sensational to be true, it can’t possibly happen very often, certainly not in our local town or village. No normal, reasonable person would put themselves in to this type of situation… if they do, they must possess a degree of culpability themselves, right?
Modern slavery however is a term many people are still not familiar with. We use this term in the UK because of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Modern slavery is an umbrella term that encompasses human trafficking and slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour. Last year there were 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery referred to the Home Office. This represents a 20% increase in referrals compared to the preceding year and is the highest number of referrals in one year since the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) began in 2009.
Victims of human trafficking and slavery are dehumanised, treated as a commodity, and bought and sold just like property. They have control taken away from their lives, they are silenced, tricked, groomed, and abused purely for the benefit of their exploiters. Victims have reduced autonomy and very little chance for escape because they are either physically constrained or have mental and physical restrictions placed on their ability to move freely, such as living under constant threats of violence.
Children – especially those trafficked to a country away from loved ones and those they trust, often unable to speak the native language and unsure of their rights – become invisible and silent.
A common threat for victims of trafficking from overseas is that if they dare to escape, or are bold enough to ask authorities for help, they will end up arrested and treated as a criminal because of their unfavourable immigration status. This threat alone is often enough to keep people enslaved for many years. Mo Farah’s story reaffirms the fact that human trafficking and exploitation (modern slavery) is not a new problem, it isn’t a recent post-modern phenomenon, it is in fact a centuries long issue that has evolved and mutated in response to the social, political, and economic landscapes of the time.
Yes, it became illegal to trade in enslaved people under the Abolition Act 1807 and slavery itself was abolished when the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 came into force, but that didn’t stop the exploitation of human beings, it just pushed it deeper underground. For context, the last country to officially ‘abolish’ slavery in the world was Mauritania in 1981.
Slavery today is not just about race and the oppression of a particular culture, it is simply the abuse of an imbalance of power over which a person or group of people are tricked, coerced, forced, or threatened into some form of exploitation for the gain, normally (but not always) financial, of the exploiter.
You might be surprised to learn that the most exploited nationality in the UK in 2021 were British nationals, the majority of these were British national children who were victims of child criminal and sexual exploitation.
Research shows us that for child exploitation to occur we simply need a motivated perpetrator, a suitable target, and a conducive environment1. It is not true that all victims are helpless, weak, or alone. In fact anyone, given the right circumstances, can become a victim of modern slavery.
Here at the University of Hull, our mission is to use the lessons from the past to inform the future. Our modern slavery project The ACTion to Combat Modern Slavery Justice Hub is working to combat modern slavery by using research and knowledge exchange to engage and empower people to create a culture of change for good.
Using education and research we want to bridge the gaps that exist between research, law, policy, and practice, so all people have fair and equal access to their rights. This is a big part of the University’s Strategy 2030 and its focus on social justice. We have the skills and resources to contribute to making significant strides towards a fairer world for everyone.
The Wilberforce Institute is also an integral part of the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre which was created by the investment of public funding to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to address it. With high quality research it commissions at its heart, the Centre brings together academics, policymakers, businesses, civil society, survivors and the public on a scale not seen before in the UK to collaborate on solving this global challenge.
Trafficking and slavery are crimes that are hidden in plain sight. From child criminal exploitation to domestic servitude, they are often incredibly difficult to detect, even harder to protect the victims and almost impossible to prosecute the perpetrators. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that just 185 prosecutions occurred in England and Wales between April 2016 and March 2021.
Of these cases, only 95 resulted in a conviction and 90 resulted in non-convictions. The latter were generally because of prosecutions being dropped.2
The actions of Mo’s teacher all those years ago contributed significantly to him being able to live the free and successful life he leads now. His actions should serve as an example to professionals in diverse sectors that we are able to safeguard children at risk and, with the right support, they can thrive.
Mo Farah’s story will undoubtedly help us raise awareness and improve understanding of the very urgent issue of modern slavery in the UK and around the globe. For the sake of every man, woman and child in slavery today and the many more at risk of being targeted and exploited, we need to keep the conversation flowing so their voices can be heard. If you think you or someone you know could be a victim of modern slavery you can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or report concerns online. You can also ring the police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.
For more information about what is happening locally in Humberside, visit Humberside Modern Slavery Partnership.
Manager – Justice Hub
Coordinator – Humber Modern Slavery Partnership
1 Barlow, C., Kidd, A., Green, S. T. & Darby, B. (2021) Circles of analysis: A systemic model of child criminal exploitation. Journal of children’s Services.
2 Concern over lack of modern slavery prosecutions
Image: Creative Commons: Tab59 from Düsseldorf, Allemagne, CC BY-SA 2.0