Beyond the headlines … with Hannah Lewis

Episode: Beyond the headlines … with Hannah Lewis

In July 2022 the news broke that Sir Mo Farah, four times Olympian for Team GB, had been trafficked to the UK as a child. The headlines enhanced public understandings of trafficking. They brought into the frame the children forced into domestic servitude and the circumstances which mean that their situations may not come to light. Hosts Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson are joined by Dr Hannah Lewis, University of Sheffield to discuss what trafficking is and its relationship to modern slavery and forced labour; public responses to victims of trafficking; and how the Hostile Environment further limits the possibilities of exiting the relationships of exploitation at the heart of trafficking.

TRANSCRIPT Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are beyond the headlines, the podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I’m Michaela Benson. Ala Sirriyeh [AS]: And I’m Ala Sirriyeh. In our day jobs we’re sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We’ve also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today. MB: We’re really, really pleased today to be joined by Dr. Hannah Lewis, who’s a senior lecturer in sociology at the Department of sociological studies at the University of Sheffield. And I just realised that I have now known Hannah for almost exactly 20 years, because 20 years ago, we started our PhDs together at the University of Hull. Hannah’s interested in understanding how policies shaped the daily lives of people who migrate and she’s done lots of work that looks at how precarity and contingency linked to the legal status of migrants can increase susceptibility to poverty, exclusion, and forced labour. She’s the co-author of books, which include the modern slavery agenda, and precarious lives. And her recent research includes studies on the role of faith based organisations in responses to modern slavery. But she’s also done work on temporary refugee status in the UK and Australia, and belonging among young migrants and vulnerable conditions. So thanks for joining us, Hannah. Hannah Lewis [HL]: Thank you. AS: Today, we’re going to be talking about the case of Mo Farah. This is a case that emerged in July in 2022. We were going to record a bit nearer the time but various events in our lives happens in between. So here we are now, in October talking about these events from July. So this was the case involving Mo Farah who’s a four times Olympic champion, competing with Team GB. And during early July, it was revealed publicly through a documentary that he was involved in that he had been a victim of trafficking to the UK as a child. And so the headline that we are going to use today really opens up some discussions around the public and political discourses on trafficking. The headline that we’ve selected is from Wednesday, the 13th of July from BBC News Online, and headline reads, so Mo Farah relieved home office won’t take action over citizenship. So I’ll briefly summarise what the story in this article says. So it describes him as this four times Olympic champion. And it says that he’s publicly revealed earlier that week that he’d been trafficked to UK as a nine year old child, and his real name was Hussein Abdi Kahin. In the UK, it appears that he was forced into a position of domestic servitude until he was eventually confided in a teacher at school who contacted social services, and then he was able to move out of this household that he was staying in and to move in with the family of a Somali friend. He went on to gain British citizenship under the name Mohamed Farah. And so what is really, really noticeable about this story, and what the article I think, lays out really clearly is the very sympathetic and supportive reception that Mo Farah received on telling this story, including it seems not just from the general public, but also somewhat surprisingly, we might say from from the Home Office as well. So this is something that I’d like to explore with you a bit more Hannah. So I think our first opening question would really be what sprang to mind when you read this headline from the BBC. HL: Thanks, Ala for that overview. I think the first thing that sprang to mind really was profound sadness. At the heart of this story is a child who remembers being excited about getting on a plane for the first time, thinking he was going to the UK, to escape displacement in the context of conflict and war, to be cared for by relatives. And he ends up being isolated and exploited in domestic servitude for a number of years. But I think there are elements of his experience that are quite instructive in exposing the risks faced by children, in families affected by conflict and displacement. But for me, there was also unfortunately, a familiarity of his experience, which I think is probably shared by everyone who works with people who have experiences of trafficking. And there are elements of his experience of domestic servitude that are unfortunately, quite typical to experiences of trafficked children. But it’s also important to note that the typical portrayal of trafficking is still very much pinned around, or dominated by experiences of sexual exploitation. And so the idea that a child would be moved to the UK intentionally for the purpose of domestic servitude, I think, is still something that’s quite unknown in the public domain, which is one of the reasons why the story attracted so much attention alongside the global celebrity of you know, involving Mo Farrah. MB: I think that’s really that’s a really useful introduction, Hannah to quite a lot of the key themes that that we’d like to explore with you today. And I think, before we go into those a bit, there are a couple of things I just wanted to, to ask you to kind of spell out a little bit more, because I’m not sure how many people have a clear understanding of what trafficking is. And in terms of, you know, the kind of the, perhaps a legal definitions around that. But also, what are the challenges even of spelling out? HL: Yeah, this is really important. I mean, in this area, there’s a lot of interest in legal definitions. And of course, in terms of actually holding people to account who are exploiters. Those definitions are really important. But from an academic perspective and in terms of reality, we’re dealing here with a kind of a mesh of different terms and dimensions and sort of sociological experiences, in terms of trajectories in life and how these experiences of exploitation kind of fit into people’s trajectories. So people are understandably very keen, often to differentiate trafficking from other things, because with that, recognition come comes protection. So in terms of human trafficking, nearly all of the legal definitions that currently we currently see around the world in different nation states stem from a definition in a United Nations Convention, which is known as the Palermo protocol that was passed in the year 2000. And it defines human trafficking in three main ways. So we talk about the act, which is that it means recruitment, transportation transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. The means, which is the use of threat of force or other forms of coercion, which might include abduction, fraud, deception or any abuse of power or vulnerability. And a third element which is the purpose so it has to see the end, it has to result, in the purpose which is exploitation. So achieving consent of a person for the purpose of exploitation, that includes as a minimum prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or other services, slavery, or practices similar to slavery. And in the context of the UK and many other countries Europe, US, Canada to name but a few, then how we understand how this definition interacts with migration is really important. In the UK historically, since this definition was brought into legislation initially in 2004 in the Immigration Act, for people subjected to trafficking sexual exploitation. It’s always been defined in the UK very closely to an immigration offence. But actually many legal specialists are at pains to point out that the idea of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring at no point mentions border crossing. So the collusion of trafficking and border crossing is something that tells us a lot about the way that we understand power dynamics in the world today. But in the UK, the legal definition moved away from being embedded in an immigration or an immigration control prerogative, with the modern slavery act. Well, initially with forced labour legislation that was passed in 2010, but then, more fully in the modern slavery act. And that’s the definition that’s currently legally significant in the UK, which actually draws together that human trafficking definition that I just mentioned, with slavery, servitude and forced labour, which is in the human rights convention, as well as criminal exploitation, which is kind of a little bonus extra that the UK added in there without actually defining it very clearly, which must be very difficult for the courts. So we now have a definition that encompasses slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour as well as human trafficking. And what Mo Farrah experienced is described in the documentary by him and others and understood clearly by him in terms of his kind of embodied experience, if you like, as domestic servitude. And legally domestic servitude is understood as a form of forced labour. The International Labour Organisation has developed 11 indicators of forced labour. And I’ll just mention the ones that I think are visible, if you like in the narrative that’s been made public about Mo’s experience, which is abuse of vulnerability. So he was a child, he was an undocumented child deception. So he thought he was coming to the UK for protection. And he ended up being kept in a house and made to work, restriction of movement. So he didn’t have freedom to move, he asked for years to go to school. This is typical of the situation of trafficked children that they’re often told that they will be getting education, and that’s what they want. And they, I’ve met young people who arrived in the UK who have gone to the ends of the earth almost, to try and get access to that education, even if, as he did, he ended up going to school, and going home to a situation of abuse. Isolation. So he was clearly isolated, he had his documents taken off him. And actually, it’s depicted in the documentary that he had a piece of paper with the names of his relatives on it. And when he arrived in the destination of this residential accommodation of this woman who moved him, she ripped up, he describes quite graphically, she ripped up this piece of paper and threw it in the bin and kind of said, No, you’re not going to be contacting your relatives. And that was the last chance that he had of actually seeing the destination that he was expecting. Intimidation and threats, so he describes her being somebody who did threaten him. Retention of identity documents have already mentioned, withholding of wages and when he wasn’t paid, but that’s a little bit of a complicated one in terms of domestic work, and abusive working and living conditions. So he talks about how he didn’t really have a proper living space and sleeping space in the place where he lives and that he would escape sometimes to the bathroom and cry. And that was his only kind of refuge. AS: Hannah, that’s a really helpful and really, really clear definition for us. I mean, it’s so complex that it’s, you know, it’s helpful to have the 11 points of recognising that it shows just how complex and varied some of the conditions are within this broad phenomenon of modern slavery or forced labour. I wanted to come back to your earlier point where you were talking about a couple of aspects of this article that made it exceptional or unusual to read in comparison tosome of the stories you’ve heard. So there was one point about his celebrity, which which we’ll probably come back to in a moment. But there was something else that you mentioned that I thought was really interesting was that this was a story about domestic servitude. And you said about how that’s more unusual to hear about those stories compared with stories about being forced into sex work. And I’ve wondered if you might be able to, perhaps say a little bit more about that sort of why I suppose why do you think that there is more public awareness or coverage of particular kinds of forced labour or experiences in that sense? HL: Yeah, sure. I mean, this is something that I think is really important, not just from a moral perspective, or if you’d like a human rights perspective, in the sense that, even though we may critique, and we should critique the many ways that there are to count people who are in what’s known as modern slavery or forced labour, it’s been known for a long time or or believed for a long time that there are numerically more people in the world who are in forced labour than in forced sexual exploitation. And yet this image, if you like, of the exploited, usually female, in sexual exploitation has a kind of a cache and a continuity, that it sort of has a power, that organisations campaigns, policies, policymakers, police, authorities, just kind of, they just can’t give it up. But just thinking about the direct question that there are people in forced labour who don’t get the protection and support that they need, it has really detrimental effects for many people. And I’ve recently been doing some research on the role of faith based organisations in anti trafficking in the UK. And I think many of the faith based organisations that we spoke to, are actively kind of managing that challenge all of the time, where they might, for example, receive a cheque in the post, and it would say only for women only for women exploited in prostitution, or sex, sexual exploitation. And they just choose, for example, not to reveal to their supporters maybe that they have a house that’s just for men who have drug and alcohol issues who’ve been in labour exploitation, for example. So I think, actually this case, and the fact that Mo’s chosen to go public with it, and the fact that he’s male, because the other thing is that even if people understand domestic servitude, it’s very common for the domestic realm and exploitation in the domestic realm to be assumed to be something that is only experienced by women and girls. But I do think that the level of his fame, and the amount of attention that this situation has attracted and the stories attracted, hopefully will be beneficial to breaking down some of those public perceptions, and ultimately, changing where the money goes, basically how the money is spent, and who is deemed to be a deserving victim in terms of interventions in the spaces that are considered to be within the realm of anti trafficking and anti modern slavery. MB: I think that’s really interesting, Hannah, and one of the things that I’m picking up from how you very carefully responded to the questions is exactly the extent to which this narrative must have been very, very carefully constructed, both to draw out some of those key themes within the legal framing of these issues, but also to tell a story that does run counter to that prominent story or, or brings to the surface issues within trafficking, issues within modern slavery that aren’t necessarily so well known, but done in a very sensitive way. HL: It’s very clear to anyone who’s ever worked on issues of forced migration and the intersection with exploitation, that huge care was taken over what was and was not revealed in the documentary. And ultimately, what we do see is a reemergence of this idea that kind of somebody has to be beyond reproach, the most deserving person, who has experienced extreme forms of harm, abuse and persecution, in order to be the recipient of any kind of sympathy or protection. So whilst I do think that his story in his case will have lifted the lid on, and hopefully led to protection of some people who would have seen it in the news, but we also see in this case the fact that everybody responded very positively to his story. It was a global story. It was headline in many countries in the world. And his situation is just one of such sympathy. He was a child when he was moved, he was a refugee, he was escaping war. He was then subjected to abuse he was confined in the house. One of the really important things about his narrative is the way that he devised his own exit. And I think this is something really important to emphasise in this realm, where there’s a rescue narrative, which is very dominant. And even now we see the police and trafficking organisations often positioning themselves as saviours who, and they will use the word rescue, that that’s their main mission is to rescue people from modern slavery. And that positions the saviour, usually a white saviour, in a position of power, to rescue somebody who is often non white, who’s a victim who’s in a position of weakness. But Mo, just like, I would argue, all people in forced labour and forms of slavery today, as well as historically was the person who facilitated his own exit from forced labour. And this is just something really important to emphasise and underline, in terms of how we think about the public perception of what slavery is, and also where the money goes, in terms of what kind of interventions are useful in reducing exploitation. And he went to a teacher at school and disclosed what was happening and that teacher facilitated the involvement of social services and he was moved to another family. Something else to just mentioned there is it was actually really lucky for him, that he was placed with another family who, who were linked somehow to his wider social network from Somaliland. And it just so happens that he was linked with somebody who was very nice, and who did care for him like a parent. But in our work on precarious lives, one of the things that we have elaborated there is the idea of the precarity trap. And in fact, many of the people that we’ve spoken to and worked with over the years, do not have that kind of positive exit narrative so straightforwardly. Many people, in choosing that moment of exit might be exiting to something that’s only marginally further along a kind of spectrum of abuse and exploitation from what they’ve previously been undertaking. So they might exit from a situation of abusive exploitation into one that’s still extremely low paid, and it does not constitute decent work. AS: I was really taken with the point at which you said, you know, he strategised his own exit from that situation. Not only did he experience these absolutely terrible conditions, but he succeeded despite all this. It’s almost like that classic sort of story of I don’t know migrant trajectories and that sense of, you know, he made it despite all these difficulties to become an Olympic athlete. I mean, really, you know, as you said, how exceptional does someone have to be to gain sympathy and that is really quite extraordinary. I think we’ve all seen the documentary now, where we were I kind of thought, that just surprises me a little bit that that happened, or that this didn’t happen. And I know here we’re talking about a number of years ago, but I just wondered if you might be able to say, you know, a little bit more, you said a bit about some of the difficulties that that people still face and trying to exit. But you know, what, what usually happens in a situation like that, where say, a child has managed to confide in someone that they’re experiencing these conditions? HL: Yeah, I mean, it was it was a good while ago. And in some ways, the lack of provision in what happened when he did reveal his story is worrying in the sense that as I say, social services just accepted that he would just get placed in another family. And this is contemporary, with other horrific and famous cases like that of Victoria Climbie who was a child who was unfortunately, violently abused to the point of death by a relative, and did have the involvement of external services who were aware of her existence. His situation is broadly contemporaneous with that period. And so on the one hand, there were a lot of risks involved and what happened to him. On the other hand, we didn’t have the regime that we currently have. In all kinds of walks of life, really, if you’re a person who’s a migrant, and you have experienced some sort of form of abuse, it’s almost impossible for you to get any form of support, without the person who’s offering that support being required to report you to the Home Office. So the notion that a child would be able to go on, to go into school, to become an exceptional athlete, to make an application for citizenship is obviously quite unusual, and actually probably wouldn’t happen today. I think in terms of exits from exploitation, exploitation is incredibly varied, people’s trajectories are incredibly varied. And there’s no, really there’s no really one story. But there are elements of his case that I think are instructive, from the point of view of how he ended up in exploitation, what happened while he was in exploitation, and what happened as he left. So in terms of how he ended up in exploitation, and how we might understand exit, it’s really important to understand here that a friend of the family approached the adults that he was living with who were family members of his mother, to offer travel to the UK. Now, this is pretty typical of child children who are moved for the purposes of exploitation. It’s very often a known family member or a friend of the family or someone who emerges. And it’s everyone’s dream, to come to Europe and have that opportunity for education. So of course, people will respond to such an offer. And it seems, although we don’t ever hear from the woman who exploited him, it seems pretty clear is that she was not part of some kind of elaborate organised crime network. And that’s another element of this area. That’s important to emphasise that the police and the authorities, immigration authorities, both in the UK and other countries are at pains to kind of paint modern slavery and human trafficking, and indeed smuggling just within the migration spectrum as some kind of highly organised crime activity when in fact, it’s very often migrants helping other migrants. So the fact that it wasn’t an organised crime network means that he was able to leave. And it was just this one woman that he was escaping from. Now, it is obviously obviously the case that there are trafficking situations that do involve organised crime as in more than one individual operating, you know, in a non spontaneous way. And those individuals usually fear reprisal and reprimand. And haveoften been threatened with reprisal and reprimand. And I think, in fact, he was told that if he revealed himself to the authorities that he would be removed and, you know, receive some kind of reprisal. And this is very often the case, that’s a really common form of coercion. The way in which the threat of immigration controls feeds its way right back into the migration spectrum right back into exploitation experiences is fundamental to understanding the difficulties that people have in leaving and the fear that people have in leaving. But the other thing that we might think about is in his exit trajectory, is this story of citizenship. And as you’ve been covering in many of your programmes, in this podcast, it’s not so easy for people now who have any kind of background of undocumented history to gain citizenship, no matter how compelling their background is, no matter how compelling their situation is, no matter how much there’s an overlap of many protection issues in terms of backgrounds of persecution overlapping with subsequent exploitation, we’re finding that trafficked people get subjected just as brutally to the what we call ‘the culture of disbelief’ in the home office as anyone else. And in fact, at the same time that the Mo Farah documentary came out, there are other examples of people who have tried to go into sports even. There’s like a direct case of someone called Kelvin Bilal Fawaz, who has been doing quite well in boxing. But as a traffic child, he has not been able to regularise his status, and was subsequently not able to participate at a professional level in his chosen field. And there’s, you know, plenty of examples that we could draw on, to demonstrate the exits, for people who are exiting from forced labour is a case of weighing up not just the risks and the threats to them of exploiters, after leaving, but also the risks and the threat of being exposed to immigration controls, deportation, detention, and so on. MB: This is such a rich discussion in so many ways, because you’ve covered everything from this particular situation and the struggles that people in these situations find themselves in all the way through to actually the challenges that those organisations who work with people in those situations face in navigating actually a highly politicised environment where some issues are likely to gain more public support than others or some people are likely to gain more public support than others. And I think it’s really helpful to kind of lay out that complexity, but also the contradictions in working in that space that people are having to face on a day to day basis. So thank you very much. I just wondered if there was a kind of a takeaway message that you would have liked people to leave this episode having learned? HL: Yeah, I mean, there are many takeaway messages, I think. But the overwhelming one is that we cannot resolve the problem of severe exploitation in the UK or anywhere else, without disentangling it from scapegoating of migrants and xenophobic immigration controls. It’s not possible to intervene effectively in this area, without tackling the problems that we have in the UK, with immigration controls, and the way in which these are now being woven into everyday life through the hostile environment, through the responsibilising of everyday people in their roles in banks, housing, health, and so on. You know, someone can’t even go to the hospital, in escaping from a situation of the level of abuse that we’re talking about in these kinds of contexts without being asked whether or not they have a right to medical care and whether or not they can pay for it if they don’t. And those health care sites are really important sites of disclosure. So understanding that modern slavery, the fight against modern slavery, is inextricably linked to the fight against the hostile environment and the incursion of immigration controls into everyday life in all walks of life is totally central to addressing severe exploitation alongside a fight for universal workers rights irrespective of their legal status. As: Thanks very much had a for such a rich discussion today, as Michaela’s said already. And we’ll maybe just conclude by you know, asking where can people find out more about your you and your research in this area. HL: I think the easiest place would be via the University of Sheffield website where I have a page. AS: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you for listening, everyone. HL: Thank you. MB: You’ve been listening to Who do we think we are? Beyond the headlines, a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyehand Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for production and post production support, and to George Kalivia for our fantastic cover art and social media assets. We’d also like to thank Niamh Welby, who provides much needed support behind the scenes to get these episodes together. If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts, and links to all our socials. You can also find us at That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another headline in the next month.

In this episode we cover …

  1. Human Trafficking
  2. Sir Mo Farah
  3. Forced Labour and Domestic Servitude


… we cannot resolve the problem of severe exploitation in the UK … without disentangling it from scapegoating of migrants and xenophobic immigration controls. It’s not possible to intervene effectively in this area, without tackling the problems that we have in the UK, with immigration controls, and the way in which these are now being woven into everyday life through the hostile environment.

—Hannah Lewis

Where can you find out more about the topics in today’s episode?

Find out more about Hannah and her research on the University of Sheffield website

Read her co-authored book Precarious Lives

Our headline for this episode was Sir Mo Farah ‘relieved Home Office won’t take action over citizenship’

Call to action

Follow the podcast on all major podcasting platforms or through our RSS Feed.

To find out more about Who do we think we are?, including news, events and resources, check out our website, follow us on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.