mo farah’s slavery story could help stop trafficking

Sir Mo Farah's documentary will help dispel modern slavery myths peddled by our politicians, writes Unseen CEO Andrew Wallis.
Photo credit: Maxisport, Shutterstock

I take my hat off to Sir Mo Farah, who has revealed he is a survivor of modern slavery and was trafficked to the UK as a child.

How much courage must it have taken for the double Olympic champion to relive this traumatic experience? And to share it with millions of people in a new BBC documentary?

In telling his story, and doing it so publicly, Sir Mo has done the anti-slavery movement a massive service, too.

We often struggle to raise awareness of the true extent of modern slavery and human trafficking. Sir Mo has helped us no end on this front. It can happen to anyone.

Child trafficking in Britain

Sadly, Sir Mo’s story is not unique, as reports of child slavery in the UK reached a record high this year. Data from the Home Office show that out of 3,777 potential victims of modern slavery identified between January and March, 1,471 (39%) were children – the highest recorded number for a single quarter.

Trafficking victims are often unwilling to speak about their experiences, through fear of revisiting the trauma. In some cases, they are worried about reprisals from the criminal gangs that have been exploiting them or the Government.

Combine this with a general lack of awareness of what to look out for, and the issue often goes unreported and does not get the attention it deserves.

I am frequently asked, “Slavery? Didn’t that end with abolition in the 19th century?” If only that were true.

From sex trafficking to forced labour to domestic servitude to criminal exploitation to County Lines and even organ harvesting, modern slavery is alive and well and increasing today.

Human trafficking figures

The Government estimates that at any one time between 10,000 and 13,000 people are in situations of slavery in the UK, which is alarming enough. The experts, however, think the real figure could be in excess of 100,000.

Globally, human trafficking is hugely lucrative for organised crime. Ten years ago, it was estimated to be generating up to $150 billion in profits per year. We estimate that it is more likely approaching $500 billion per annum now – higher than the total GDP of many small countries. It is only beaten by the drugs trade for the illegal revenues it produces.

In the UK, you’ll find modern slavery in illegal car washes, nail salons or children forced to carry drugs known as County Lines.

It’s also there in fields where labourers are forced to work for a pittance and in factories making fashion items for our high streets. The list of severe exploitation of people goes on and on.

It’s not just individuals who are suffering. The impact on the UK economy is enormous. Government figures state modern slavery costs the UK up to £4.3 billion annually, based on their 10,000-13,000 figure. One report earlier this year put the real figure at £32.9 billion.

Photo credit: Keith Larby, Shutterstock

To be fair to politicians, the Government has long said it takes the issue extremely seriously.

In 2015 Theresa May introduced the landmark Modern Slavery Act, with a range of measures for dealing with slavery and human trafficking. The current administration states that it shares this commitment.

However, recent legislation and noises from some ministers do not chime with this sentiment. They threaten to turn the clock backwards and unpick the decent work that has been done to tackle human trafficking in the UK.

The new Nationality and Borders Act that came into force this summer, is designed to address immigration and asylum concerns, particularly when it comes to the vexed problem of people smuggling across the Channel.

But it also confusingly includes changes in how we deal with modern slavery, which is not immigration, smuggling or asylum, despite the Government regularly conflating these issues.

It will deter some victims from coming forward through fear of deportation, while others could miss getting vital support from the authorities because of new deadlines on reporting what has happened to them.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recent comments, suggesting modern slavery was being used as an excuse by illegal immigrants to stay in this country, has not helped. Nor will she provide any evidence to back up her allegations. Ultimately this could damage many genuine victims’ chances of escaping exploitation.

Many modern slavery victims are British nationals – 34 per cent of the total identified in 2020. It makes no sense that they are now adversely affected by laws all about targeting small boat smuggling.

Enter Sir Mo Farah, sporting hero, national treasure and, as we now learn, survivor of modern slavery.

His revelations will not only raise awareness of modern slavery among millions of the public but hopefully prompt politicians and voices in the media to dial down populist rhetoric, pause for thought and consider the power of compassion, restoration and hope instead.

If you think someone might be a victim of trafficking or have concerns about anything you have seen, ring the free, 24-hour Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700. Our Helpline is a lifeline for many trapped in slavery – and a vital source of support and information for the public and people fighting exploitation in the UK. But to keep the Helpline running as a free 24/7 service, we rely on the generosity of people like you. By donating, you can ensure we can continue to answer a call for help, any time of day or night.

Article first published in the i newspaper

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Justine Currell

As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.

For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.

I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.

In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.

Andrew Wallis

What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.

But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.

I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.

This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.

When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.