Past Them Have Hastened Processions of Retreating Gunteams

Photograph Source: Imagens Evangélicas – CC BY 2.0

I’ve just helped mark the World Day against Trafficking in Persons 2022 at an event hosted at Goodenough College in London by the International Forum for Understanding. (UNODC defines trafficking in persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.) At this event, I was asked to discuss the relationship the media has with it and quickly realised how little I knew on the subject.

At least a number of my fellow presenters did know what they were talking about. Some of them were still bravely combatting their own terrible life experiences at the same time as educating the rest of us on why the voices of those with lived experiences are important, especially if we wish to destigmatise the subject and create solutions. The special individuals in question included American artist Kendall Alaimo, Austrian artist Laurent Ziegler, and North Korean writer Ji Hyun Park, who escaped a remarkable two times from North Korea.

For my sins, in the end I wanted to examine how few things are exactly what they seem. I discussed the fact I had recently seen the documentary ‘The Real Mo Farah’ on Olympic gold medal winning long-distance runner Mo Farah. It had promised to tackle the issue of trafficking in persons head-on. My family and I were on our knees, I remembered, watching each of Mo Farah’s awe-inspiring races leading to his two gold medals at the London 2012 Olympics. I remembered us all shunting ever closer to the TV screen as he ran straight-backed and elegant both times towards the finishing line. A remarkable man, a remarkable story, in many ways a remarkable film. It spoke of an unsettled childhood and genuinely fearful journey made by a young boy from Somaliland to the UK. I was also struck by the importance in the gifted runner’s later childhood of one of his London teachers.

Here’s the thing. The documentary was produced by a PR company. To be even more accurate, it was made by Atomized Studios, the in-house production wing of Freud Communications, whose sole director is the talented PR guru Matthew Freud. The BBC rarely make their own films nowadays. As I understand it, the trouble with this type of storytelling, even when the subject matter contains the inherent nobility of a person like Mo Farah, is that a PR company will have the power at all times to control the truth. It will be protecting all kinds of interests. These could even include the marketability of a client. I happen to know about this sort of thing because I once made an independent film about the dismantlement of the NHS — doing just that, if you like, giving a one-sided view, though in my case in a polemic about something I believed was in everybody’s interests at the time.

The trouble with the story of both trafficking in persons and the media covering it is that the press is always waiting in the wings hoping for some salacious or sensationalist titbits on trafficked young women for prostitution. There are no nuanced stories being told here. The women are never truly listened to and we will not be hearing of the many young men, either, trafficked to do hard labour for a pittance, or for nothing at all. With this Mo Farah film, at the same time as revealing the ghastliness of such trafficking, there was perhaps insufficient oxygen given to the fact he actually appeared to be the victim of a family rift begun when his father was tragically killed in the war back home. Yet the TV programme, as powerful and as moving as it was, felt like it left a number of these things out. Perhaps the most fundamental one was why the ‘real’ Mohamed Farah — son of Mukhtar Farah, who was waiting for him at Heathrow all those years ago — was left in Somalia. I adore Mo Farah, to this day. But it does remain possible that his real story is STILL not being told. It is just possible he is still a victim.

So I fear this type of thing always becomes something else, and people fed regularly by a sensationalist press — or here in the UK also by the less kind wing of its ruling party — feed too much on it and say, SEE, this wasn’t trafficking at all. Ha-ha. Or – how typical of the woke generation to have allowed us to think otherwise.

I don’t know if any readers have seen the light-hearted new Apple series called Loot in which our heroine is basically one of the richest women in Los Angeles and her challenge to herself because of a recent divorce to a very wealthy but selfish man appears to be to try and do nothing but good with her money. The series begins to grate after a while but does throw up a few interesting points. As Maya Rudolph’s character Molly Novak swiftly discovers, even with all the money in the world, plus an appetite to do good with it, it is never easy. As Mo Farah is also perhaps rediscovering, it is a media minefield out there. Mo Farah would in his own mind have done what he did for good reason. But look what happened. The press afterwards wouldn’t leave him alone, and the subject of trafficking in persons has been belittled in the end.

And then you get someone as surprising as Kendall Alaimo whose work stands proud in the UN headquarters in New York. Or someone as committed as Austrian artist Laurent Ziegler, whose work was shown in London last week. I had the pleasure of meeting both at Goodenough College at the above mentioned event. I had already watched a piece about Kendall Alaimo on CNN. I had also read her essay on the United Nations website. Both Kendall Alaimo’s contributions rang true. Both contained emotion. There was no spin. There was a media-savviness, but no manipulation. At the heart of both Kendall Alaimo and Laurent Ziegler are the artists themselves, in command, on top of their own story, on top of their agenda, with a kind of hard-earned independence, which you suspect only a true survivor of such an unforgivable hell can know.

At one stage I watched Kendall Alaimo present Alice Walpole, director of Goodenough College, with one of her famed red chairs, signifying what the artist says is ‘the fundamental human right of freedom that every human being is entitled to at birth and a symbol of our collective commitment to ensuring these very freedoms’. Just as at the UN, this will now be kept on permanent display at the College. Now, this is media, I remember thinking. I felt the same when viewing Laurent Ziegler’s carefully placed works on the floor. He displays the same kind of private dedication in the face of personal abuse that I first saw in artist and former child abuse victim David Wojnarowicz in New York in the mid-eighties. What Kendall Alaimo and Laurent Zeigler do is show the world an alternative path to raising the profile of Trafficking in Persons. They are like people with small lighted torches poking about in the dark until they find a way through.

Perhaps one of the most powerful presentations came from North Korean writer and defector Ji Hyun Park. When someone who has endured imprisonment in North Korean gulags stands up and speaks, you sit up and listen. Just as the legendary Afghan business woman and world-stage champion of her country Hassina Syed said later about the risks of not engaging with Afghanistan, not acknowledging in someone else’s plight is not just an aberration but the author of despair.

I do understand it is hard, though. When I lived a short while on Lesbos and watched each day floods of people coming ashore via Turkey from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq, I was just as aware of a LACK of compassion for anything migratory — enforced, coercive, or otherwise. It is no secret to say that much of society in the West today, certainly until the last few months when the world began drawing breath for something dramatic, has been over-comfortable and highly self-serving.

So how do people raise the profile of Trafficking in Persons? Do they shove people’s faces in the turmoil that is unleashed by criminal masterminds with a penchant for other people’s distress? Do they become authoritarian like the UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel here in Britain by threatening to send people to Rwanda like tiny pieces in a macabre game of Snakes and Ladders? How do they raise the Trafficking in Persons profile?

One way seemed to me by marking the World Day against Trafficking in Persons 2022 as was done last week by the International Forum for Understanding at Goodenough College. I learned a lot.

And I love Mo Farah.

Peter Bach lives in London.