The latest in the news about human trafficking is a great illustration of the breadth of extremes this crime touches. Recent revelations about an Olympic athlete’s background as a child trafficking victim come concurrently with news reports about a large network of Rohingya girl victims trafficked from Bangladesh to India. As the former gains intense media attention, the hope is that it might shine a light on the plight of so many others who suffer similarly. Let’s take a closer look at both.
News Update: A British Runner Reveals His History
Four-time Olympic champion, Mo Farah, recently revealed in a documentary that he had been trafficked to the U.K. as a child. As a British long-distance runner, Mo Farah has won four gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games, and he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017. He also won the Chicago Marathon in 2018. However, he made headlines last week when he revealed that when he was about nine years old, he was taken as a refugee from Somaliland, where he was born, to the house of family members in Djibouti, at which point, he was trafficked by a woman he didn’t know to London. He had been excited to fly on a plane and believed he was going to see relatives. In London, however, the woman destroyed his identity documents and forced him to work as a domestic servant, taking care of her children in exchange for food.
At first, he wasn’t even allowed to attend school. The woman threatened that he would be taken away if he ever spoke up. When he did begin his education at the age of 12, though he couldn’t speak English well, he developed a relationship with his P.E. teacher, and eventually told the teacher about his situation. The teacher called social services, and he was moved to a Somali foster family and helped to apply for British citizenship. However, he kept his background a secret, fearing that acknowledging it would lead to deportation and the loss of his citizenship. Thankfully, it appears that the British Home Office has pledged not to take action against him.
His story is extraordinary in that he was able to catapult from these inauspicious beginnings into a life of incredible achievement. Anti-trafficking advocates hope that his move to come forward as a victim of child trafficking will embolden other survivors to come forward as well. As Danica Kirka for The Christian Science Monitor puts it:
“His story, which has resonated globally, comes as conflict, climate change, and economic collapse displace record numbers of people around the world, pushing more and more migrants into the hands of gangs who smuggle them into Britain, the European Union, and the U.S.”
It puts a very public face to a problem where too often those who survive never get to share their stories, and his story helps show the complexity behind the term “illegal or irregular migrants” to help people understand that it’s not a homogenous group of wrongdoers but also can include people who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
The very same week as Mo Farah’s revelations came out, a much smaller news story broke.
Investigators in India Discover Trafficked Rohingya Girls From Bangladesh
An investigating agency recently discovered a whole network of Rohingya girls trafficked from camps in Bangladesh to multiple cities across India. According to The Irrawaddy, it was described as a “well-designed larger conspiracy to exploit the illegal migrants and also to destabilize the population ratio and demographic scenario of the country [India].”
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been living in camps in Bangladesh since the 1970s. Among the victims were girls whose families had been evicted from Myanmar’s Rakhine State as recently as 2017. Though Bangladesh is said to have improved in the past 5 years in its efforts to combat trafficking, this news report helps elucidate the depth of the problem. The girls were victimized by a five-layer trafficking network of Bangladeshi traffickers who lured them with offers of better opportunities in India, brought by the second set of traffickers from Bangladesh across the border, sent to the third set of traffickers who produced fake documents and connected with clients, then a fourth set would arrange the pickup and drop off of girl victims with the final set: those who paid enormous sums of money for the girls they could exploit.
Though the news report doesn’t specify the number of victims, it does suggest a very large operation with many traffickers involved.
Mo Farrah’s story combined with these Rohingya girls represents extreme ends of the trajectories of trafficking victims, one very famous and dominating headlines, the other whose faces, stories, and even numbers remain unknown. Hopefully, Farrah’s story won’t remain just a singular one that briefly steals the spotlight. Hopefully, it will help draw attention to the plight of so many others suffering from similar circumstances.
Last But Not Least
This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report was released this week. Thailand was upgraded to Tier 2, as a reflection of the increase in investigations, among other significant efforts made, despite COVID restraints. We congratulate Thailand’s Ms. Apinya Tajit upon her recognition as a TIP hero for her work to help trafficking victims in the fishing sector!