Sir Mo Farah admits that he was trafficked to the UK as a child

By Amer Zaman

on September 6, 2022

Read Time: 8 Minutes

In July, the most successful British track athlete in the history of the modern Olympic Games – Sir Mo Farah – revealed in a BBC documentary that he was illegally trafficked into the UK under another child’s name at the age of nine.

The 39-year-old long-distance runner revealed that his real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin, the name Mohamed Farah having been given to him by those who flew him over from the East African country of Djibouti.

The four-time Olympic champion added in a documentary by the BBC and Red Bull Studios, The Real Mo Farah, that he was brought to the UK by a woman he had never met, and was forced to work as a domestic servant once he arrived in the country.

Sir Mo’s open retelling of his childhood trafficking trauma brought a wave of sympathy and praise, including from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson, who hailed the athlete as an “inspiration to people across the country”. The Home Office also told BBC News that it would not take action against the Olympic star in relation to the illegal manner of his arrival in the UK. But what else does the story say about how the UK public perceives trafficking and how such cases continue to be processed, on a backdrop of sustained difficulties faced by survivors of exploitation?

What else did Sir Mo say about his trafficking ordeal? 

The Olympic gold medallist said that while his decision to share his story of being trafficked to the UK was difficult, he was motivated to do so by a wish to “challenge public perceptions” of trafficking. In the words of the Team GB athlete, “for years I just kept blocking it out, but you can only block it out for so long.”

Sir Mo’s father, Abdi, was killed by stray gunfire amid civil violence in Somalia, when his son was four years old. The Olympic gold medallist said he was taken from home to stay with relatives in Djibouti at eight or nine years of age, before a female stranger flew him to the UK, telling him that he was being taken to Europe to live with relatives there.

The woman told him to state that his name was Mohamed; the athlete said that she had fake travel documents with her that displayed his photo alongside the name “Mohamed Farah”.

On their arrival in the UK, Farah said that the woman took him to her flat in Hounslow, west London, and took from him a piece of paper with his family’s contact details; he was ordered to do housework and childcare “if I wanted food in my mouth”. Farah wasn’t initially allowed by the family to attend school regularly; however, at the age of about 11, he enrolled at Feltham Community College. It was his PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, who saw a transformation in the youngster when he took to the athletics track, and who helped Farah with an application for British citizenship under his assumed name.

Is Mo Farah a British citizen?

Although the name ‘Mohamed Farah’ was – as retold by the athlete – merely the name given to him by those who had brought him illegally to the UK, it was under this name that he went on to gain British citizenship in July 2000.  

The Olympic champion expressed fears in the documentary about his immigration status. However, the Home Office confirmed after his disclosure of his trafficking ordeal that he would not face any repercussions for this.

A Home Office spokesperson was quoted as saying by The Guardian: “No action whatsoever will be taken against Sir Mo and to suggest otherwise is wrong.”

Legally, the government is entitled to remove a person’s British citizenship in the event of it being discovered that their citizenship was obtained through fraud.

However, an official from the Home Office explained to BBC News that it would not take such action against the athlete, as it was assumed that a child was not complicit in cases where citizenship was gained by deception. Sir Mo expressed his relief over this news in an interview with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, adding: “This is my country. If it wasn’t for Alan and the people who supported me throughout my childhood, then maybe I wouldn’t even have the courage to do this.”

What has the reaction been to Mo Farah’s disclosure?

Sir Mo’s retelling of his story brought praise from many quarters, including government, as well as appeals to use this moment to shine a fresh light on the treatment of trafficking victims today.

That praise came from the heart of UK government, with current Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi – who himself was forced to flee Iraq as an 11-year-old – hailing the athlete as “truly inspirational” and an “amazing human”.

Mr Zahawi said to the BBC: “I salute Mo Farah. What an amazing human being to go through that trauma in childhood, and to come through it and be such a great role model is truly inspirational.”

Former long-distance runner Sir Brendan Foster, meanwhile, described Sir Mo’s story as a “Hollywood movie” and an “amazing, successful story of someone overcoming adversity.”

However, there was also much emphasis among the responses on the importance of taking forward lessons for the future from the Olympic star’s experience.

For example, Lisa Nandy – shadow secretary of state for levelling up – said Sir Mo’s decision to be vocal about his trafficking experience could be a “gamechanger”.

A joint statement signed by key figures from such entities as After Exploitation, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), the Helen Bamber Foundation, and Anti-Slavery International, said the athlete’s action “should stand as an inspiration for us all and strengthen our resolve to identify trafficking, protect children and ensure that all victims of trafficking and slavery in the UK are able to safely come forward and secure the support they need to rebuild their lives.”The statement continued: “Shockingly, even when they do come forward themselves, many victims of trafficking, including those who were trafficked as children, will find themselves disbelieved, at risk of immigration detention, removal or incarceration at the hands of the authorities who should be proactive in offering protection.”

How many children get trafficked in the UK?

Sadly, even decades after Sir Mo’s ordeal, there remain many instances of child trafficking in the UK. During 2021 alone, almost 5,500 child trafficking cases were referred to the Home Office.

In 2019-2020, just 2% – 17 out of 754 – children who were exploited and trafficked to the UK, and who applied for the discretionary leave to remain status that would give them permission to remain in the country, actually secured it. This is despite the UK being subject to international human rights treaties which require child victims of modern slavery to be granted leave to remain in their best interests.

According to a statistical bulletin from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the hidden nature of modern slavery presents challenges for determining the numbers of victims. The UK’s recognised national statistical institute said that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) “currently provides the best measure of potential victims, although is known to be an undercount.”

Nonetheless, for the year ending December 2021, data for the UK NRM showed that the 5,468 potential child victims referred amounted to an increase of 9% compared to the figure for 2020 (5,028). The ONS said that of those referred, 91% received a positive reasonable grounds decision (RGD), meaning they were judged to be “reasonably likely to be victims”.

What should Sir Mo’s case mean for the treatment of future child trafficking cases?

With Sir Mo Farah’s experience being far from an isolated one, it is remarkable that even today, survivors of exploitation face considerable difficulties from a UK legal and immigration system that ought to protect them.

The ability of such survivors to access safe housing, counselling, and subsistence under the Modern Slavery Act is now subject to stricter procedures and exemptions under the Nationality and Borders Act.

Nor is it enough – as some commentators have done in response to the BBC documentary – to simply re-emphasise the need for strong refugee protections. Although such protections are undoubtedly of critical importance to great numbers of people, they are not sufficient in themselves to consistently reach slavery survivors, not all of which are eligible for asylum.

There has been some recent progress in this regard; in the case of EOG and KTT, lawyers scored a significant victory in March, the Home Secretary being directed to issue recognised trafficking survivors with immigration permission while they wait for the frequently years-long asylum process to conclude with a decision.

It was a judgement that represented a real breakthrough for many people who were previously unable to access employment or mainstream benefits in the UK. However, with the fundamental design of the asylum system not exactly geared towards such migrants’ needs, there remains a limit to the help that can be extended to trafficking survivors in a fundamentally flawed framework.

In the words of the aforementioned joint statement by representatives of various organisations: “We must ensure access to key entitlements such as child protection and care, specialist legal advice and medical support as well as support to access education and employment to enable recovery.

“We must act. We need to rebalance our identification and support systems in favour of all victims, making clear that the UK has a positive obligation to identify potential victims, to protect and care for all children in need and that if any victim comes forward they will be supported and helped to rebuild their lives in safety.” If you would like to discuss how this story may affect you and how we can help, please reach out today to our specialists in immigration law in central London. Call our team today on 0208 215 0053, or complete and submit our online form to arrange a free consultation.

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