‘Mo Farah has drawn attention to a crime that is not looked at properly’

The champion runner’s story has refocused attention on human trafficking, including in Ireland

Weekend p.1 Illustration Mo Farah child trafficking for Mary Carolan

“What really saved me, what made me different, was that I could run,” Mo Farah, the British Olympic athlete said this week when revealing he was trafficked to the UK as a child.

Farah said he wanted to tell his story to challenge public perceptions of trafficking and slavery.

“I had no idea there was so many people who are going through exactly the same thing that I did. It just shows how lucky I was,” he said in a BBC/Red Bull documentary broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday.

Not all human trafficking victims are as lucky as Farah, who eventually told his story to a caring teacher, leading to a move to a foster family. He went on to live a life akin to a fairy-tale, involving stellar athletic success, being reunited with his birth family in Somaliland and elevation to ‘Sir Mo’.


The champion runner’s story has refocused attention on human trafficking, including in Ireland where its extent is believed to be much higher than official statistics indicate. A number of defects in the State’s response to the problem were identified last year in a report examining the situation internationally.

Whether various measures pledged by the Minister for Justice will result in Ireland achieving a better ranking will be revealed next week with the publication of the latest Trafficking in Persons Report, produced annually by the US Department of State to evaluate the actions of countries globally in combating human trafficking.

“This is ultimately a crime of abuse of human beings and the international responses to it are nowhere near what is necessary,” according to Limerick-based Kevin Hyland, Ireland’s current representative to the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), who was Britain’s first independent anti-slavery commissioner. The sad reality, he notes, is that 99.9 per cent of human trafficking crimes are unsolved, it affects about 40 million people worldwide, and brings in an estimated $150 billion (€150 million) a year to criminals.

The number of human trafficking cases identified in Ireland last year was 44, lower than previous years, and no children were included in those statistics, Hyland notes. Some 25 cases – 24 females and one male – concerned sex trafficking, while 15 males and four females were identified as forced labour trafficking victims. To date, Ireland has recorded just one conviction – in 2021 – for human trafficking.

Hyland believes the real number of victims last year must be higher and must include children. He notes the UK figure for trafficked people last year was about 12,000, including 14 Irish people of whom nine were children, while the figure across Europe was more than 20,000.

The Department of Justice has acknowledged the actual number of people trafficked here is likely to be significantly higher as many victims remain undetected.

Between 2015 and 2019, 318 people, including 25 children, were identified as suspected human trafficking victims here. That included 196 females, of whom 20 were minors, 116 males, of whom five were minors and one transgender person.

Most people are trafficked for sexual exploitation with smaller numbers for labour exploitation, organ harvesting and forced criminality.

Mo Farah’s disclosure of his experience is “a real wake-up call” to the problem of human trafficking, Hyland says.

Despite Farah’s fame and success, he was still worried what would happen to him if he disclosed his true identity years after securing UK citizenship in what had turned out not to be his real name. The British home office has said Farah’s citizenship will not be affected but others have not been so lucky.

Hyland, who previously worked with the London Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit, recalls being involved in trying to prevent the deportation from the UK of a man in his 30s who, as a boy, had been abused in a paedophile ring. Another case involved a teenage girl from Nigeria who had been raped and sold for prostitution in the UK and whose plight only came to light when she was jailed for having false documents when an effort was made to move her to France.

Some children, he outlined, are brought into the UK by criminal gangs and some are brought in by family members and sometimes sold. Poverty is a big factor in trafficking, he says, adding that before the more privileged express horror that families would hand over their children, they should “walk a mile in their shoes”.

The circumstances of some families are so desperate they believe they have no option and going to the UK or elsewhere is the only hope of a better life for their child, Hyland says.

“The wealthier parts of the world are not responding properly to human trafficking. The environment is very hostile, Mo Farah is an Olympic champion, he is tolerated, he managed to get opportunities, there are scores of people who don’t. What happens to them?”

Sr Joan Roddy, a member of Act to Prevent Trafficking (APT), a faith-based group whose members are part of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland (AMRI), says victims of trafficking can often feel, or be made to feel, as if they are the guilty ones rather than the victims of a crime.

“Victims are the people who most often end up being sanctioned. What society needs to think about instead is how it can make restitution to people who are somehow made to feel guilty over what happened to them, including as children.”

“Look at what Mo Farah achieved and what he contributed when he was given an opportunity,” Sr Roddy said.

Among the concerns of several NGOs working to combat human trafficking here is that the Gardaí remain the sole competent authority for formally recognising people, via the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), as victims of human trafficking. That deters victims from coming forward and/or seeking support, and they are also concerned about delays in formally identifying people as victims.

“Trafficking and exploitation are, by their very nature, hidden phenomenon; hidden but often in plain sight,” says Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which acts as Ireland’s National Anti-Trafficking Rapporteur under EU law.

Farah’s case “offers a rare and painful glimpse two of the most clandestine forms of trafficking; trafficking for the purposes of forced labour/servitude and child trafficking”, Ms Gibney said.

There is a “considerable dearth” in understanding of both these forms of trafficking, and the commission outlines what needs to be done to tackle and combat all forms of trafficking, particularly the need to detect and protect the most vulnerable, Ms Gibney said.

“The chronic delays in the dysfunctional National Referral Mechanism means that victims often wait months to receive a decision on whether they will be formally identified as a victim. Without such identification, victims are left to face the perils of the immigration system or, in some cases, the criminal justice system alone without support or understanding of what they have endured.”

The lack of progress in relation to legislation in this area is a big concern, according to Edel McGinley, director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.

McGinley noted that, under the last Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Ireland was downgraded to the “Tier 2 Watch List” of countries and territories whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards in the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

That watch list includes countries where the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions, or there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in people from the previous year.

The TIP 2021 report said human traffickers continued to exploit domestic and foreign victims in Ireland and to exploit victims from Ireland abroad. “Traffickers subject Irish children to sex trafficking within the country,” it stated.

It considered the prevalence of human trafficking in Ireland to be likely much higher than official statistics report, noting that an independent 2021 study found, from 2014-2019, the true number of trafficking victims was approximately 38 per cent higher than the official national statistics.

Foreign trafficking victims identified in Ireland were from Africa, Asia, eastern Europe and South America and the authorities and media had in recent years reported an increase in suspected victims from Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Romania, it said.

Traffickers, according to the report, exploit victims of forced labour in domestic work, the restaurant industry, cannabis cultivation, nail bars, food processing, waste management, fishing, seasonal agriculture and car washing services.

Undocumented workers in the fishing industry and domestic workers, particularly au pairs, are vulnerable to trafficking while migrant workers from Egypt and the Philippines are vulnerable to forced labour on fishing vessels. Women from eastern Europe who are forced into marriage in Ireland are at risk for sex trafficking and forced labour, it observed.

With the next TIP report due for publication next week, there is some optimism among Garda sources that Ireland’s ranking will improve.

The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told the Dail last week, when answering questions from Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín, that having the Garda as the sole authority is “not optimal” and approval has been secured to have the NRM revised and placed on a statutory footing.

The NRM provides a way for all agencies, both State and civil society, to co-operate in identifying and supporting victims and the new approach acknowledges other State bodies and NGOs have a role in identifying victims of human trafficking and referring them to the NRM, she outlined.

The Minister said a new National Action Plan (NAP) on human trafficking has been prepared and there would be more stakeholder consultations before it is finalised and submitted to Government for approval in the third-quarter of 2022. The recently published Third National Strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence contains an action to identify linkages between the implementation plan accompanying the strategy, and the NAP on human trafficking, as well as ensuring actions to prevent prostitution and combat trafficking for sexual exploitation are addressed in an integrated manner, she said.

Informed Garda sources believe Ireland will get a better ranking in the 2022 TIP report.

A specialised Garda unit, the Human Trafficking Investigation and Co-ordination Unit has been in place since 2009 and the Garda approach to human trafficking is two-fold, a source said.

The first focus is on identifying and supporting the vulnerable victims and the second is going after the organised crime gangs behind much of the trafficking.

“Human trafficking is being organised, managed and controlled by organised crime gangs, it’s not about someone coming in on the back of a lorry and being left to their own devices.”

A number of investigations are underway and progress has been made in identifying the gangs behind trafficking, he said. Facilitating the operation of an OCG, by, for example, providing a taxi to transport trafficked women for sexual exploitation is a criminal offence, he pointed out.

Mo Farah’s story, Hyland stresses, underlines the need for “unconditional support” for trafficking victims. The famine memorial sculpture on Dublin’s Custom House Quay, with its haunting figures, should not, he says, just be a reminder of the devastation inflicted on Ireland, it should make us think more deeply about the plight of others who have fled their home countries for reasons including poverty and war, and take steps to help them.

We could and should look more closely at the conditions of those working in homes, car-washes, nail parlours, restaurants, farms, on fishing boats, and check for signs of exploitation, he says.

“Mo Farah is very brave, he’s a tough, strong, formidable person who is also full of humility and compassion. He has drawn attention to a crime that is not looked at properly. He made something of himself despite what happened. Many others don’t have such good luck stories, we need to start seeing them as victims of crime, not perpetrators.”

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times