Last week, Olympic and world champion British runner Mo Farah revealed that he was trafficked to the UK as a child. His courageous decision to share his experiences has led to widespread support from media and the public – and from the Home Office (UK interior ministry), who described him as “truly inspirational”.
However, if the UK government is serious about ending trafficking, it must do more than praise Farah as an individual. As a country, we need to learn from his case and take action. The government’s ongoing review of its modern slavery strategy and upcoming Modern Slavery Bill present great opportunities to do so: here are the four key lessons we need to implement.
1. We need a trauma-informed system which doesn’t penalise survivors for late disclosure.
As Farah’s case shows, it can take a long time for survivors to disclose their experiences. For him, it has taken thirty years. This can happen for several reasons. Sometimes, survivors of trafficking keep quiet because of the fear of stigma, or of not being believed. Survivors who were trafficked as children may not fully understand what has happened to them until they are adults, making it difficult to disclose their exploitation until after the fact. Trauma can complicate the process further because it affects memory, and even the process of sharing a traumatic experience can itself be retraumatising, creating another disincentive to disclose.
We need to see a system which acknowledges that delays are not evidence of deception or inaccuracy. We also need trauma-informed processes for disclosure, making it easier for people to share their experiences.
2. We need to create a culture of support, not fear.
Trafficking victims in the UK are at risk of criminalisation, even if the crime they committed was as a result of being trafficked and therefore outside of their control. For example, Farah’s case involved an immigration offence. Other trafficking victims in the UK are forced to take part in criminal activities such as growing cannabis.
Traffickers know how to manipulate victims’ fear of being penalised for these offences. They use it to make sure that victims don’t seek help from authorities, warning them that if they report what has happened, they could be deported or otherwise punished. This means trafficking cases slip under the radar as victims and survivors are afraid to come forward.
We need to create a safe environment for victims and survivors – one in which their immigration status is secure and they know they will be treated with dignity and respect if they disclose.
While the Home Office was quick to assure Farah that no action would be taken against him, we need to see the same protection extended to survivors who have no public platform.
3. We need a humane and dignified approach to immigration – to take power out of the hands of traffickers.
Like Farah, many vulnerable people in the world today are made susceptible to trafficking, often by situations outside of their control – like conflict. He was living in war-torn Somalia, where conflict had recently claimed his father’s life. This conflict made him vulnerable to trafficking.
We’re seeing similar vulnerabilities right now with refugees who have fled Ukraine and other conflict zones. Many women and children who have escaped Ukraine are running low on resources, making them more vulnerable to false offers of work and accommodation from traffickers. We need to ensure there are safe, legal and accessible immigration routes that prevent people being targeted by traffickers.
4. We need to listen to survivors – not only those with public platforms.
It is right that Farah’s courage is acknowledged and celebrated – he’s made a powerful impact by sharing his story and putting a spotlight on this issue. It is now time for the UK government to pay similar attention to the experiences of trafficking survivors who are not public figures. Without understanding the reality of survivors’ experiences, it will not be possible to create a modern slavery strategy which effectively addresses the problem of trafficking. The UK government now has an opportunity to listen to survivors and create strong solutions.
International Justice Mission has supported survivors of trafficking who were exploited in the UK, and we have seen firsthand the need for robust, trauma-informed support which protects survivors’ rights. We know that stopping trafficking is possible – but it can only happen if, as a country, we are prepared to acknowledge the reality of how trafficking happens, and develop robust, humane solutions which protect the rights of victims and survivors.