Imran Khan’s victory has brought relief to many among Britain’s 1.2 million ethnic Pakistanis. They hope that an Oxonian prime minister who was a glamorous cricket star married to a British socialite of Jewish parentage might help to turn the spotlight away from the dark shame of grooming that haunts the community. Even Britain’s Pakistani-origin Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has ordered an investigation into why grooming gangs are disproportionately Pakistani.
Grooming is a fine old word with a sordid new meaning. The Home Office defines it as “A course of conduct enacted by a suspected paedophile which would give a reasonable person cause for concern that any meeting with a child arising from the conduct would be for unlawful purposes.” It can be defined as the process that an abuser uses to desensitise someone – to make them less like to reject or report abusive behaviour.
Grooming can happen when there is a power differential within a relationship, which the abuser exploits for their own gratification. In short, it’s preparing someone, child or adult, for a life of sexual exploitation. Grooming can be online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone the victim knows. Many of the abused girls say they were given drugs and/or drinks. Most seem to be unemployed working class girls in shabby run-down industrial towns where substantial numbers of Pakistanis settled when factory jobs for unskilled workers were plentiful. Now many of these towns face economic distress.
According to one report, 84 per cent of the people convicted of grooming-gang crimes since 2005 are Asian (read Pakistanis). The Home Secretary must be a worried man. Pakistanis are not generally known in Britain for their high achievements. Most are believed to be originally unskilled labourers from Mirpur in Pakistan-held Kashmir.
Javid is the highest any Asian has risen in government. His only peer is the Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who must be equally concerned. Javid has ordered that research be carried out into the characteristics of child sexual abuse gangs, such as those that have blighted towns and cities like Rotherham, Oxford and Newcastle in recent years. Writing to Sarah Champion, the Labour MP who has campaigned on the issue, Javid said he had directed officials to work with police to learn more about how such gangs operate and how that compares to other forms of child sexual abuse. He said he wanted to “establish the particular characteristics and contexts associated with this type of offending”, adding that officials were looking into the “characteristics of offenders, victims and the wider context of abuse; all of which have critical bearing on the effective targeting of prevention activity”.
The Home Secretary was responding to a letter from members of a cross-party working group on the issue that includes Ms Champion, whose Rotherham constituency was one of those to suffer at the hands of a gang.
Javid would hardly have taken this step if abundant police and press information hadn’t indicated that adult male Muslim immigrants of Pakistani origin are prominent in the vicious trade. He has even suggested that public officials are often reluctant to point a finger at the culprits lest they be accused of racism. Predictably, some liberal white commentators are hinting that in his ambition to succeed the beleaguered Theresa May, the Home Secretary might be playing up to the Tory right.
Coyness was no longer possible after Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham and shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, wrote an article for the Sun newspaper last year under the screaming headline “British Pakistanis ARE raping white girls … and we must face up to it”. The accompanying picture of the convicted men showed 17 Pakistanis and one white. “BRITAIN has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls” Ms Champion declared, adding, “There. I said it. Does that make me a racist? Or am I just prepared to call out this horrifying problem for what it is?”
As pressure mounted, Jeremy Corbyn, probably anxious not to alienate Pakistani votes, allowed her to resign from his shadow cabinet. Undaunted, she returned to the subject recently, and has again been receiving death threats after a Rotherham-based racial justice charity, Just Yorkshire, criticised her “incendiary comments” that could cause a “potential rise” in racial tensions. It claimed her “deliberately reckless” comments endangered those “she claims to champion by making grooming an issue of race rather than the systemic abuse of vulnerable children and young people that the state failed”. She is reportedly receiving increased security from Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit.
A report in the Times in 2012 first claimed that gang rape and trafficking were widespread in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham. An investigation concluded in August 2014 that political and police failures had contributed to the sexual exploitation of 1,400 children in the town over 16 years. Rotherham’s grooming gang was sentenced to a combined 103 years in prison.
Another newspaper investigation, by the Sunday Mirror, found that up to 1,000 girls in the Shropshire town of Telford may also have been victims of grooming gangs since the 1980s. It was Britain’s “worst known abuse scandal” proportionate to Telford’s size, with girls as young as 11 drugged, beaten and raped. Nineteen British-Pakistani men were jailed between 2012 and 2015 in the Lancashire industrial town of Rochdale after a grooming ring thought to have abused at least 47 girls was uncovered.
Nevertheless, the data is sketchy. The police and other agencies don’t record the ethnicity of offenders as part of their normal investigation. Additionally, there are concerns that some authorities might be more willing to record Asians than white, if only because the former are more distinctive. Ms Champion says she doesn’t want to target all Pakistani males. The Home Office too says that grooming “is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion, but political or cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing and covering child abuse.”
Some British commentators refuse to typecast grooming criminals as Muslim Pakistanis. They recall that Nazir Afzal, the lead Crown prosecutor, in the Rochdale trial, claimed criminals were defined by their treatment of women and not race. “There is no community where women and girls are not vulnerable to sexual attack” he argued. More recently, the judge in the Newcastle prosecution stressed that victims were selected “not because of their race, but because they were young, impressionable, naïve and vulnerable.”
But as India’s child-snatcher-suspect lynchings demonstrate, mobs are more often moved by emotion than logic. In this situation there’s enough of both horror and fact to explain the strongest repulsion. Imran Khan and the excitement of British Pakistanis over his election victory can provide temporary distraction, but the grooming scandal will continue to cast its shadow over not only Pakistanis but all male Asian migrants.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.