Mo Farah's story should encourage countries to revisit their refugee policies

With global child trafficking figures likely to rise, a more humane approach is needed

Mo Farah celebrates winning gold in the men's 5,000-metre competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. AP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Thirty years ago, a young boy was illegally taken to the UK from Djibouti to work as a domestic slave. Hussein Abdi Kahin is a British hero today, except that he identifies by a different name, given to him by those who smuggled him into the country using fake travel documents.

Mohamed Farah, now 39, is arguably the greatest track and field athlete to represent Britain. He has won four Olympic gold medals, two each at the 2012 and 2016 summer games. He is knighted, and a household name in his forcibly adopted country, of which he is nonetheless a proud citizen.

Shocking revelations about his story appear in a BBC documentary called The Real Mo Farah. In it, the long-distance runner talks about experiencing the fallout of civil war in his native Somaliland almost as soon as he was born, including losing his father to the war at the age of four and being separated from his mother.

That Farah overcame such a tragic and traumatic childhood to become the man he is today will endear him even more to his adoring fans, both in the UK and abroad. It will also win him new admirers, including those who don’t follow sport. Most importantly, however, it should shine a very necessary spotlight on a crime that, to this day, continues to be rampant and widespread.

Child trafficking refers to the exploitation of girls and boys, primarily for forced labour and sexual exploitation. Motivations very often also include debt bondage and war recruitment. Trafficking occurs around the world, including in the most stable of countries. In the UK, for instance, child trafficking rose nearly 10 per cent this year, to a total of 5,468.

As one would expect, however, human trafficking (of which more than 30 per cent of cases involve children) is more acute in war zones. Loss of homes, livelihoods and all manner of agency makes civilians prime targets for human traffickers, particularly if they have children.

Recent figures give us a troubling peek into the future. According to Save the Children, an advocacy group, more than 400 million children live in conflict zones today. A Unicef report published last month reveals that about 36.5 million children have been displaced worldwide, the highest number since the Second World War.

These numbers are likely to rise as the world becomes more unstable, presumably leading to more conflicts. And the greater the extent of children’s displacement, the greater are the chances of them being trafficked. Therefore, a concerted effort from the international community to protect children both physically and emotionally from the ravages of war has become a matter of utmost urgency.

Last month, the UN called on member states to implement its six-point action plan to tackle the problem. Some measures will take time, but one step that is surely implementable right away is ending harmful border management practices and child immigration detention. Governments often use these practices as a means to dissuade the next wave of refugees and migrants from streaming in, but they must consider the long-term psychological damage they can do, particularly to children. The fear of being punished can be a compelling enough reason for victims of child trafficking to avoid reporting abuses against them.

This makes Farah’s decision to muster the courage to tell his story even more admirable – and inspirational to thousands of less fortunate people who have had similar experiences. It should also move governments, certainly the one in London, to review their refugee detention policies and how they handle cases of displaced minors.

Published: July 14, 2022, 3:00 AM
Updated: July 15, 2022, 7:36 AM