Mo Farah Documentary Puts Spotlight on U.K.’s Hard-line Policy

LONDON — The harrowing revelation by Mo Farah, the Olympic track and field star, that he was trafficked to Britain as a young child has reverberated widely in his adopted country, where immigration remains a fraught issue and candidates vying to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson have defended the government’s policy of putting some asylum seekers on planes to Rwanda.

Experts said they hoped Mr. Farah’s stark personal story would humanize the complex challenges faced by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, pulling the debate away from what has been the government’s single-minded focus on cutting the numbers of people crossing the English Channel into Britain.

While immigration experts said they did not expect Mr. Farah’s case to shift broader policies in a Britain governed by the Conservative Party, it could raise public awareness of the evils of human trafficking, particularly of children.

Mr. Farah’s vivid memories — of being transported as a 9-year-old Somali to Britain under a false name, of being forced into domestic servitude for a family, and of being rescued by a school gym teacher who helped get him into the care of a friend’s mother — stunned Britons, who thought they knew one of their great sportsmen.

“This is a really important story,” said Rob McNeil, the deputy director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. “If you don’t create moments where the exceptional shines a light on the ordinary, you risk a situation where the ordinary is kept out of people’s vision.”

Mr. McNeil said he doubted that the outpouring of reaction to Mr. Farah’s story would affect the government’s policy of transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda. Since announcing the plan in April, the government has forged ahead, despite legal challenges and fierce criticism from human rights activists.

Still, several leading candidates have reaffirmed their support for the relocation plan, which is popular among people who vote for the Conservative Party. One of the centrist candidates, Jeremy Hunt, said he would favor expanding the list of countries that receive asylum seekers beyond Rwanda.

“If we want to become a humane country that offers a safe haven for people who genuinely need asylum,” Mr. Hunt said to Sky News, “then we need to find legal safe routes for people to come here and not a mad dash for people to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers and try and get across the channel.”

Political leaders from all sides scrambled to pay tribute to Mr. Farah, testifying to his exalted place in British sports. He is perhaps the most successful long-distance runner in history and the first British track and field athlete to win four Olympic gold medals.

In 2017, Mr. Farah received a knighthood for his services to sports from Queen Elizabeth II. When he appeared at a concert for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee last month, the crowd gave him a thunderous round of applause.

“Everything Sir Mo has survived proves he’s not only one of our greatest Olympians but a truly great Briton,” Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said on Twitter.

For Nadhim Zahawi, the chancellor of the Exchequer and a candidate for Conservative Party leader, Mr. Farah’s story shared a few elements of his own. He, too, came to Britain as a refugee, fleeing Saddam Hussein in Iraq at 11 with his family. But Mr. Zahawi, who has defended the government’s Rwanda policy, was quick to emphasize the differences between himself and Mr. Farah.

“I was very lucky that my parents were with me when we fled Iraq,” Mr. Zahawi said on the BBC’s morning program. “I salute Mo Farah. What an amazing human being — to have gone through that trauma in childhood, and to come through it and be such a great role model is truly inspirational.”

Mr. Farah’s full story will air Wednesday in a documentary produced by the BBC and Red Bull Studios. Through a spokeswoman, he declined a request for further comment.

In the documentary, Mr. Farah expressed concerns that he was putting his British citizenship at risk by sharing his story. But Britain’s Home Office said it didn’t plan to take action against him. Children are not complicit in fraud or false representation committed by their parent or guardian. Government officials also said they did not expect to take any action against Alan Watkinson, the teacher who helped him obtain citizenship.

Encouraged to pursue sports by Mr. Watkinson, Mr. Farah went on to win a gold medal in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races at the 2012 Games in London — the latter providing a stirring climax to what came to be known as “Super Saturday,” when Mr. Farah won one of six British golds in a single day on home soil — and then repeated the feat in Rio de Janeiro four years later.

Those achievements turned Mr. Farah into a household name, with his signature “Mobot” victory celebration featured in advertising campaigns for everything from broadband providers to meat substitutes.

Though Mr. Farah’s reputation was tarnished by his connections to Alberto Salazar, the disgraced coach found to have violated doping regulations in 2019, his popularity proved sufficiently resilient for him to embark on a reality television career the following year.

For all the brutal details of his story, Mr. Farah’s flight from Somalia bears similarities to those of many others.

After the outbreak of war in Somalia in 1991, many families fled, seeking refuge in neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, and later finding resettlement opportunities in third countries. Some of those fleeing also arrived in Western countries after a spouse or family member filed an application sponsoring them.

At times, families substituted one relative for another for various reasons, among them the fact that the original person in the application might have been killed in the war. That meant that a child would have their names and places of birth changed and the exact relationship to that relative concealed.

For children caught in this web, many would go on to live in a new country with men and women they didn’t particularly know or were distantly related to — opening the door to abuse and exploitation.

“This is pretty shocking,” Nadifa Mohamed, whose first novel “Black Mamba Boy” was based on her father’s story of hardship and survival before arriving in Britain, said in a phone interview. “For him to have so much fame under a name that was imposed on him from these really terrible circumstances is just shocking.”

Ayan Mahamoud, the former Somaliland representative to Britain, said Mr. Farah was “brave” for opening up about his past, particularly in light of how his so-called family repeatedly went to the tabloids to disparage him for falling out of touch with them after he became famous. His revelations, she said, should bolster conversations about the impact of trafficking on children and how to care for them.

“I am so proud Mo had the courage to speak up and tell his story,” Ms. Mahamoud said in a phone interview from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, a breakaway region in the northwest of Somalia. “They trafficked him to a hell-house, but he was able to overcome it and become a free man.”

Human trafficking remains pervasive across the Horn of Africa, with women and children moved across borders for domestic work, sexual exploitation and forced begging, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Somaliland, where Mr. Farah is from, has been identified as a particular region of origin and transit for international trafficking to countries including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

For now, some refugee experts said, the focus should be on Mr. Farah’s courage in coming forward rather than on any impact his story might have on Britain’s immigration debate or the future of its policy.

“It’s a deeply personal revelation, and it’s great that he’s felt brave enough to do this,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights program director at Amnesty International. “The very first thing people should do is to respect him and his story.”

Mark Landler reported from London and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Rory Smith contributed reporting from Manchester, England and Tariq Panja from London

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