In a BBC One documentary entitled “The Real Mo Farah,” Sir Mo Farah, one of the UK’s long-distance track stars, revealed he was brought to the United Kingdom as a child and was then exploited for his labor.
Farah was born in present-day Somaliland in 1983. His parents named him Hussein Abdi Kahin. Farah’s father died in the Somali civil war when he was about four years old. Farah was eventually separated from his mother and then was trafficked to the United Kingdom around the age of nine. He was flown to the United Kingdom by a woman he had never met before and to whom he was unrelated. However, she told Farah that he was being taken to Europe to live with relatives. In the documentary, Farah said he was excited about the flight because he had “never been on a plane before.”
When Farah arrived in the United Kingdom, the woman gave him fake travel documents and told him to say that his name was Mohammed Farah. The woman then took Farah to her apartment in London. Farah carried with him a piece of paper that had his relatives’ contact information on it. In the documentary, Farah said, “Right in front of me, she ripped it up and put it in the bin. At that moment, I knew I was in trouble.”
From that point on, Farah was exploited for his labor. He was required to do the housework and childcare “if [he] wanted food in [his] mouth,” or if he ever wanted to see his family again. Farah was not allowed to go to school for his first three years in the United Kingdom. However, at the age of twelve, he enrolled at Feltham Community College. The couple exploiting Farah told administrators that he was a refugee from Somalia.
Although the school administrators and teachers noticed that Farah seemed “unkempt and uncared for,” that he spoke very little English, and was “emotionally and culturally alienated,” they never intervened. Additionally, Farah’s exploiters, who claimed to be his parents, never attended any parents’ evenings, more commonly known in the United States as parent-teacher conferences.
Eventually, Farah confided in his PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, “about his true identity, his background, and the family he was being forced to work for.” Watkinson contacted social services and helped find Farah a foster family. Once in a safer environment, Farah began to make a name for himself as an athlete. In 2000, Watkinson helped Farah apply for British citizenship. Because Farah’s citizenship was technically obtained under fraudulent circumstances, Farah did not tell his true story until 2022.
Farah’s story makes it clear that exploitation occurs everywhere, and that exploitation can happen to anyone. Keeping victims isolated – physically and emotionally – are key methods of control for traffickers. Labor exploitation, like sexual exploitation, is underreported and occurs in any industry. Not only do victims of exploitation frequently not self-identify as victims, but also law enforcement officials and social workers are not always able to identify victims of exploitation. In addition, victims often fear for their safety and wellbeing. Traffickers often target vulnerable populations such as foster children, homeless and runaway youth, foreign nationals, and individuals living in poverty.
Farah’s story also highlights the need for robust public education programs that detail the realities of human exploitation in the United States and abroad. Educating law enforcement officials, social workers, and the public about the realities of labor exploitation can promote greater awareness and recognition of signs of exploitation. Similar public education models that outline the realities of commercial sexual exploitation have been shown to decrease the demand for sexual exploitation.
The CSE Institute commends the bravery of Sir Mo Farah for sharing his story and highlighting the realities of labor exploitation, as well as the fact that labor exploitation can happen anywhere. The crimes of sexual and labor exploitation are often hidden because the exploitation occurs behind closed doors and inflicts trauma on its victims, making it difficult for survivors to report the crime. Without survivor voices, change cannot happen in the exploitation narrative – a fact Sir Mo Farah has recognized. In fact, Sir Mo Farah decided to speak out about his exploitation to challenge the public perception of labor exploitation. Survivor voices, like Sir Mo Farah’s, are essential to helping end trafficking.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.