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Voices: The Home Office ‘won’t take action’ against Mo Farah? How generous

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After Sir Mo Farah’s revelation that he was trafficked to the UK as a child and forced to live as a domestic servant, the Home Office told BBC News that it would not take action over Farah’s nationality. How generous.

It is only 30 years on, after winning 10 global championship gold medals and becoming the most successful male track distance running ever, that Farah has felt safe enough to reveal his birth name, Hussein Abdi Kahin, and how he really arrived in Britain.

He has described himself as “relieved” that the Home Office won’t be investigating him. And this is just as heart-breaking as Farah’s story of family separation, abuse, neglect and servitude.

Here’s the thing – no victim should ever be afraid they will be penalised for a crime committed against them. But that’s where we are in Britain, in 2022, and Farah’s disclosures should force us to confront our attitudes towards people who come to this country as refugees, migrants or victims of human trafficking.

Under former-PM Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary, the Tories created the “hostile environment” for migrants, “illegal” or otherwise. May presided over the Windrush scandal, where hundreds of Caribbean immigrants in the UK were wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement, barred from working, and refused access to government services and welfare. Some were detained and deported – the scars of Windrush are still impacting families today. Only five per cent of victims ever received compensation.

The current home secretary, Priti Patel, has continued the callous horror of the hostile environment – and the Tory government under Boris Johnson took it further, with the Nationality and Borders Bill and the scheme that will see vulnerable people seeking safety in the UK deported to Rwanda. Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt has already said that he will back an expanasion of the government’s Rwanda plan.

The Bill has been widely condemned – partly for its potential to “water down” vital protections for modern slavery victims like Mo Farah. The charity Anti-Slavery International warns that the act will harm survivors, due to “trauma deadlines” that put a time limit on when they must disclose experiences, after which their credibility will be in question. It has been derided for creating a harsher system (as if it wasn’t already harsh enough) with higher thresholds for victims.

A hostile environment is just that – hostile. It makes people afraid. It can make support incredibly difficult to access. It can also leave vulnerable people in limbo, failed by a state that clearly does not want them.

In the documentaryThe Real Mo Farah, which airs tonight on BBC One, the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history shares his story about how he was flown to the UK from Djibouti, aged eight or nine, by a woman he had never met before. He describes how he was threatened, made to live under a false name, and forced to look after another family’s children if he wanted to eat. Farah recounts how the piece of paper with his family’s contact details was ripped up before his eyes.

Farah’s old form tutor, Sarah Rennie, described him as an “emotionally and culturally alienated” child, coming to school “unkempt and uncared for". Before the gold medals and worldwide sporting acclaim and those lovely Quorn adverts and his stint on I’m A Celebrity, Mo Farah was a vulnerable little boy, separated from his parents and the victim of modern slavery. If he hadn’t become a star, would Priti Patel have forced him on to a flight to Rwanda? Would Theresa May have brought the full force of her “hostile environment” down upon him?

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Discourse online such as on Twitter and elsewhere that praises Farah’s achievements as a way to justify him being welcome in the UK is part of the problem. In my opinion, it fosters a culture of exceptionalism and taps into damaging narratives about “the good immigrant”; setting high bars for how immigrants and refugees should “earn” a place in Britain. As some have pointed out on social media, people deserve to be able to seek refuge and live in safety in this country, whether they win gold medals and entertain us – or not.

Farah has demonstrated incredible courage in speaking the truth of his childhood and how he arrived in the UK – trauma, particularly in the early years of our lives, can have an indelible impact that takes decades to acknowledge and unpack. His bravery is compounded by the negative rhetoric we hear all around us, from those in positions of power, directed at people who look different or are born elsewhere.

This is why, if we care about Farah and those like him, sporting heroes or not, we must resist the toxicity of the debate around immigration and asylum, which dehumanises and degrades and “others” people who are at their most vulnerable. It should no longer be a vote-winning strategy to punch down on refugees.

A Home Office spokesman told me that if a person, like Farah, was a child, they would not be considered complicit in any deception by a parent or guardian; and a child in Farah’s position would not be eligible for relocation to Rwanda.

But we must still resist the public rehabilitation of politicians responsible for such schemes, like Theresa May. She’s no “girlboss” – her legacy shames this country. In 10 years time, will we be “yass-ing” over Priti Patel if she turns up to vote in a ballgown?

We should show complete and unwavering solidarity with Mo Farah – as well as every other person like him who lacks his fame and status. No human being is illegal.

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