Special Investigations: Tackling the myth of the ‘Asian sex gangs’
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By Ann Czernik & Pete Sawyer
This week, Asian Sunday published the first of a series of reports on child sex exploitation (CSE).
Selling children for sex is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. In Britain, David Cameron has deemed CSE a ‘national threat’ on an equal footing with serious organised crime and terrorism.
For Britain’s Muslim community, CSE is a contentious and emotive subject which sparked a rise in hate crime and protests by the far right. Newspapers like the Daily Mirror urged the British Muslim community to take “a long hard look at what it has allowed to happen”
In this first report Asian Sunday examines the link between CSE and ethnicity and asks if Britain is in denial about the identity of the sex gangs in our communities.
The industrial scale of children being trafficked and sold for sex in the UK would probably never have come to light had it not been for one fact. The grooming gangs that hit the headlines were ‘Asian’
For over a decade, the Home Office ignored reports which show that year on year nearly 5000 children were at risk of CSE across the UK.
In 2011, CSE became front page news when The Times newspaper proclaimed that there was a “conspiracy of silence” around the numbers of Pakistani men abusing young white girls in on street grooming gangs.
Agencies said fears of being branded racist prevented them from taking action.
Michelle Lee-Izu, Director for Barnardo’s Children’s Services and Lead on CSE, told Asian Sunday that the emphasis on race is putting children at risk. Barnardo’s are the leading provider of CSE services in the UK, with services in 47 locations. Last year, the charity worked with 3,175 children at risk of CSE.
Izu warns that “The evidence from our young people is that it’s men of a whole range of cultures who are involved in sexual exploitation. People have to be held to account regardless of what race or culture they are from but it’s really important that people don’t get caught up in the myth that it’s only one race.”
Izu said “The risk is that girls from a range of cultures don’t get identified as victims. One of our concerns is that the girls we are identifying are mainly white” She’s quick to ask “Have services really found the way to reach girls from a range of races and cultures where exploitation is hidden?”
After the Jay Inquiry confirmed the extent of agency failings in Rotherham, Theresa May told MP’s that “I am clear that cultural concerns – the fear of being racist, and the frankly disdainful attitude to some of our most vulnerable children must never stand in the way of child protection. CSE happens in all communities”
Out of Sight, Out of Mind (2011) by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection is the only study into links between on street grooming and offender profiles in the UK. Of nearly 3000 alleged groomers, 28 per cent were of Asian origin. This figure included men from Pakistani heritage, Bangladesh, British born Asians and the rest of the entire sub-continent. The vast majority were white British.
Instead of confronting the truth about the grooming gangs, CSE is seen through a distorted prism of difference.
On 17 April 2015, amidst a blaze of publicity, six men were jailed for a combined total of 31 years and nine months for child sexual exploitation offences in Banbury in Oxfordshire. All were of Asian heritage.
The coverage of their crimes was a stark contrast to another trial which started a few days later in Wrexham. During the 70’s and 80’s, children from North Wales care homes were groomed, brutalised, trafficked and sold by their carers for over twenty years in an international prostitution and pornography racket. Children were exploited even after they left the care system, into adulthood, and former residents have claimed they were abused by MP’s, businessmen and police officers.
In 1998, the Waterhouse Inquiry concluded that there was no evidence of an organised paedophile ring operating out of North Wales children’s homes.
The National Crime Agency set up Operation Pallial to investigate abuse in North Wales children’s homes in 2012 after the BBC accused the government of a cover-up.
In April 2015, a former professional wrestler, local radio DJ and a children’s home owner appeared in court in Wrexham accused of offences relating to one of the biggest child sex exploitation rings in Britain. For a number of years, Gary Cooke, a former North Wales care home worker ran a local sex shop and supplied children for sex throughout the North of England and Wales during the 70’s and 80’s.
The seven men – all white – were convicted for their part in the grooming gang including George Phoenix, a taxi driver from Wrexham.
Stephen, who gave evidence to the Waterhouse Inquiry said “Still to this day, there is a cover-up. The current investigation by the NCA and the CPS is failing. There are hundreds who should have been prosecuted and who got away with it. I believe it would have been treated differently if businessmen, police officers and prominent people had not been involved. If the full investigation of the early complaints in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s had been properly investigated by a different police force then we would have had a different outcome. If the truth came out, I think Britain would be devastated – no one would want to believe that this had happened in such a small place. People involved in the exploitation came from all over the UK, from every section of society”
Karen Grey, a survivor of the North Wales care home scandal said “The exploitation of children continues today. Nothing will change until everyone wakes up to the reality that children were, and are still sexually exploited from supposedly safe and secure environments. Agencies are responsible for checking the background of everyone that comes into contact with children in their care. They know children are exploited and they choose to ignore it. Grooming is grooming, it still screws you over, it stays with you for the rest of your life, and it impacts on everyone in your life. Care should be somewhere you feel safe, not somewhere you are scared to go back to. Care should be knowing that no-one will hurt you. ”
But across the UK care home continue to be targeted by groomers of all ethnicities.
Izu said “Residential units are still easy targets because those men groom one young person and they can get access to other young people. Often, those young people have other vulnerabilities which make them more susceptible. There are residential units within the private sector. Some are really good, and some are challenged. “
This week, another report into CSE – The Way Forward for Rotherham – was quietly released by Rotherham Safeguarding Children Board with a startling secret hidden in its pages.
Between 2012 and 2014, nearly 70 per cent of CSE perpetrators in Rotherham are reportedly white British.
Izu said “Our role has not been with working directly with perpetrators and understanding why those patterns have been seen but someone needs to do that. It needs close working with communities to look at what is happening and what are the solutions. There is a need to understand that and communities need to be part of those solutions”
If there is a consistent factor, it’s not ethnicity.
For over 100 years, grooming gangs have operated using the same business model.
In 1885, journalist William Stead, uncovered a burgeoning trade in “maidens” supplied – at a price – to rich businessmen and MP’s by bell boys and carriage drivers. Brothel keepers would send gangs around the country to source suitable unsuspecting 13 year old victims. The pioneering reportage in the Pall Mall Gazette resulted in the “Stead Act” raising the age of consent from 13 to 16.
From Victorian madams, to rent boy rings in North Wales care homes, to the more recent Rotherham sex scandal, the same disturbing pattern emerges.
A network of abusers target vulnerable victims as potential product to be exploited within the sex industry. The ‘product’ is groomed, raped, and then passed around. Drugs and alcohol are administered to create dependency and to make victims more pliable. Many are trafficked from their home towns across the UK and sold in party houses, cheap motels, and from the back of cars. The victims rarely profit from their abuse. Instead, they are threatened, beaten and coerced into what most would call sexual slavery.
Last week, the Old Bailey heard how two young girls in Aylesbury were horrifically exploited by a ruthless sex gang from 2006 – 2012.
Woman A, told the court “Some were taxi drivers. Some were bus drivers. Some were drug dealers. Some weren’t even from Aylesbury. He used to bring them from anywhere. They used to pay him. He didn’t care…The most I had sex with in one day was five or six.” She added: “In general, I was happy. I could have any food or drink I wanted or anything else I wanted. I never paid for taxis.”
The national taxi association said that “The well publicised link between taxis and CSE has and continues to cast a long shadow over the vast majority of law abiding drivers who make their living from the taxi trade.”
In May, Barnardo’s received £735 000 from the Department for Education to raise awareness of CSE amongst the night economy in 12 areas including Bradford and Rotherham. The campaign is called “In Plain Sight”
Izu explained “It’s not assuming all taxi drivers are abusing children – they are not. The work we are doing is about raising awareness so that people can report and stop CSE. So that people are absolutely clear that this is abuse, if you work in the taxi office, or you are a non-abusing taxi operator and you want to report that information, how do you do that if you are fearful for your job?”
Izu said “One of the things we are doing is producing leaflets, training, working with licensing people They can choose not to issue a license or withdraw a license. The posters will be up in taxi offices and there will be the non-emergency number for police. They can ring in and report it as a crime.”
When we spoke to taxi drivers across the UK, they said police and the local authorities need to regulate the industry effectively, and to police CSE robustly.
None of the drivers were aware of the “In Plain Sight” campaign.
One company in Bradford said “I’ve had no-one making inquiries about CSE. I don’t think awareness training will do any good but locking perpetrators up might. Either someone is being bad or they’re not, I don’t need training not to abuse anyone. It just sounds like a job’s worth to me”
In Bradford, taxi drivers told Asian Sunday that drivers were routinely called to pick up at risk young girls. Far from being involved in CSE, these drivers were simply doing their job and say they have no control over who calls a taxi.
Taxi drivers who did raise concerns said they were threatened, and their property was damaged. They say they are scared to speak out and even if they did, they don’t have any faith in services to respond effectively.
Its twenty years since Barnardo’s set up the first project to address modern day child sex exploitation in Bradford in 1994. Izu sighs “Twenty years feels like a long time to be working on it. There is much more responsibility being taken by essentially government and local government and the statutory agencies. Obviously, some of that has been prompted by Rotherham. There is a long way still to go. We’re not there until CSE stops. I don’t know when that will be but I think that is where we should be heading”
If the myth of the Asian sex gang is allowed to colour the perception that perpetrators and victims are of one ethnicity, then it’s going to take another hundred years to get there together.
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