British athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah shocked the world this week when he revealed in a BBC documentary that he was trafficked to the U.K. as a child and forced into domestic labor. The Home Office, the U.K.’s immigration department, was quick to say that “no action whatsoever” would be taken against Farah. “The real story is, I was born in Somaliland, north of Somalia, as Hussein Abdi Kahin,” he said.
The news has put a spotlight on the U.K.’s approach to human trafficking and the treatment of migrants and raised questions as to what might have happened to Farah if he weren’t a famous Olympian. (Because Farah received his British nationality under his assumed name—which he obtained as a minor with the help of a school teacher—there was a legal risk his citizenship could be revoked. Hence the Home Office statement.)
Last year, at least 10,000 children and adults were trafficked to the U.K., and forced into crime, sexual exploitation, or, as in Farah’s case, domestic servitude. The figure is likely a gross underestimate, due to the often hidden and complex nature of exploitation, according to a joint 2021 report by the government’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and non-profit Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK).
Kate Garbers, a trafficking expert who Farah consults in the BBC documentary, discusses the broader issue. “I think it’s incredibly brave [to speak out],” she tells him, “because we do live in a hostile environment where the issues of trafficking and smuggling and illegal immigration all get conflated.”
Garbers was referring to the U.K.’s “hostile environment” strategy toward migrants, which first began in 2012 under then-Home Secretary and future Prime Minister Theresa May, to discourage illegal migration and compel those who arrived to leave. The policies went through several rebrands—most notably in the wake of the “Windrush” scandal that revealed that hundreds of Black Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly classified as illegal immigrants and deported to the Caribbean—but the basic framework remains in place to this day. In many ways, charities and campaigners say the strategy—which has limited undocumented migrants’ access to jobs, education, and health care—has become more hardline.
In April, for instance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government passed the Nationality and Borders Act, which included a highly contentious plan to resettle asylum seekers in Rwanda. The legislation criminalizes asylum seekers arriving in the U.K. who do not hold the necessary documentation and the U.K.-Rwanda deal has made it easier to deport people who, according to the government, falsely claim to be victims of trafficking. Anti-trafficking campaigners say the legislation undermines the government’s commitment to tackling human trafficking.
The U.K. has made “a lot of progress” in recognizing and legislating for victims of child exploitation since Farah was brought to the country in 1993, says Patricia Durr, chief executive at ECPAT UK, but there’s been a “rollback” in recent years. Durr says that rollback is in line with the increasingly anti-migrant rhetoric emanating from Westminster, and the government’s tough stance makes it harder for trafficking victims to come forward for fear of negative repercussions from the British state.
The U.K.’s overall approach fuels what Maria Thomas, an immigration lawyer who represents victims of trafficking, calls “a culture of distrust” in the system that means victims often aren’t believed by officials. For vulnerable people who may, like Farah, have been threatened by their traffickers, this environment makes it even harder to speak out and access state protections. Imagine, Thomas says, “that you’re coerced, you’re forced, your independence is taken from you [by traffickers], to then be told by authorities that we don’t believe you. It’s incredibly powerful in a traumatizing and negative way.”
It took Farah 30 years for him to publicly reveal his trafficking to the U.K. This pattern of late disclosure is particularly common in former child trafficking victims, Durr and Thomas say. In December last year, a parliamentary committee warned the government that the Nationality and Borders Act, which also introduced a deadline for victims to disclose what happened to them, after which their evidence is deemed less credible, would undermine the U.K.’s commitment to combating modern slavery and human trafficking.
Of the thousands of children trafficked to the U.K. every year, experts say that many who speak out find it difficult to make a home in their new country. Government data requested by ECPAT UK shows that in 2019-2020, only 2% of child trafficking victims were granted a discretionary right to stay—which they are entitled to under international law. Many today are instead given temporary visas that expire just before they turn 18, at which point their claim is passed through a different system for asylum seekers that can involve lengthy delays, and where victims are more likely to get a negative decision that risks deportation, says ECPAT UK’s Durr.
In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson told TIME that, “Any child identified as a potential victim of modern slavery or who seeks protection in the UK, will have their case carefully considered and will be given the support they need.”
The Home Office added that “child victims of trafficking are granted leave [permission to stay] on a variety of routes… in 2021 alone, 90% of UASC [Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children]—where the vast majority of these children will have their application considered—were granted leave.” ECPAT UK told TIME it was “extremely concerned [that] this suggests a government policy of [recommending] asylum applications by default for child victims” of trafficking, instead of granting them the legal right to stay, which puts them at risk of having their applications denied.
Although the BBC documentary does not reveal what visa or asylum route Farah had arrived in the U.K. under before applying for citizenship, he said that his athletic talent afforded him the support from teachers to help him through the process. For countless victims, this isn’t the case. “Not everyone who is trapped, whether it’s in a cycle of forced criminality or domestic servitude, has that kind of exceptionality that will allow them to get out of the situation,” Thomas says.
And the situation is set to get worse, campaigners say, as overstretched and underfunded public services designed to prevent harm are met with increasingly tough rhetoric from the government. All of the remaining candidates to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative party leader and therefore British Prime Minister have signaled their support for the U.K.-Rwanda deportation policy. The first scheduled flight of the contentious program was canceled after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights ignited fresh legal challenges in the British courts. The legality of the policy will be determined in September by the U.K.’s High Court.
Meanwhile, the politicization of migration in the U.K. means that children in need of protection are “getting lost in a very adult agenda,” Durr says. ECPAT UK works with children who are anxious at the idea of being deported to Rwanda, she adds, either when they turn 18 or if the government doesn’t believe they’re a child (doctors have disputed the Home Office’s age-verification methods when people lack papers or officials doubt their authenticity).
By sharing his story, Farah has brought attention back to the victims of trafficking. But there’s a limit to the impact of public awareness when victims face an increasingly hardline legislative environment. “We hear young people tell us that being in the immigration system is worse than the abuse that they’ve suffered,” Durr says. “It’s really hard to hear.”
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