In the fortnight past, during which I attended the inaugural iftars at Lancaster House and 10 Downing Street, I felt the Conservative Party had struck a chord with Muslims, especially British Pakistanis. Yet, just before the May 2023 local elections, the party seems to have shot itself in the foot, diluting most of its gains.
Suella Braverman, the British Home Secretary of Kenyan Christian Goan origin has caused quite a stir with her controversial comments, ruffling feathers amongst British Pakistanis. Braverman’s remarks on the grooming gangs in the North of England were seen as disrespectful and full of stereotypes. Her focus on the socio-economic conditions and integration of British Pakistanis in the UK implied that they were more prone to criminal activities and less willing to assimilate into mainstream British society due to cultural and religious factors.
Now, these grooming gangs have been a blight on British society for yonks, occasionally surfacing as high-profile cases in Rotherham, Rochdale, and Oxford. Whilst it’s true that males of Pakistani origin have been over-represented in some cases, it’s a bloody mistake to think it’s solely a Pakistani problem.
The reality is, grooming is a societal issue that comes in different guises, from white gangs in Newcastle and Bristol to the unsettling allegations of sexual misconduct within the Parliament itself. Films and telly have also shed light on the grim reality, showing the British audiences the appalling experiences of victims failed by the system time and again.
When top brass such as our Home Secretary makes sweeping statements targeting a specific ethnic group, it can cause quite a ruckus. The Pakistani community, long a part of British society, now risks being unfairly demonised for the actions of a few.
The ramifications of such labelling are manifold. It fosters resentment and discrimination within our society, detracting from the real issue: tackling grooming gangs, regardless of the perpetrators’ backgrounds. We mustn’t let the actions of a few dictate our perception of an entire community.
By focusing on ethnicity, we risk overlooking broader systemic failures and socio-cultural factors that have allowed grooming gangs to fester. By examining these underlying causes, we might find the key to addressing the issue effectively and inclusively.
Braverman’s remarks, seen as painting the entire community with a broad brush, were met with anger and disappointment from British Pakistanis who felt unfairly targeted and stigmatised. Many called for Braverman to retract her statements and apologise for the offence she had caused, while others took to social media to share personal stories of success and integration, challenging the stereotypes perpetuated by Braverman’s comments.
Grooming gangs are an issue in Britain, impacting countless victims and raising important questions about societal and systemic failures. However, it is essential to recognise that individuals from various backgrounds may be involved in these criminal networks. By emphasising the Pakistani origin of some perpetrators, Braverman’s comments may divert attention away from broader solutions that address the root causes of grooming gang activity. This focus could potentially hinder the development of comprehensive policy interventions that tackle the issue at its core.
What are grooming gangs?
Grooming gangs are organised groups that exploit vulnerable individuals, typically children and young adults, through a process of befriending, manipulation, and coercion into sexual abuse and exploitation. These criminal groups target their victims based on perceived vulnerability, often preying on those who come from unstable or broken homes, suffer from low self-esteem, or lack strong social support networks. Grooming gangs have been a significant and persistent issue in the UK, impacting the lives of countless victims and raising important questions about societal and systemic failures.
Grooming gangs can be traced back to the late 20th century, with sporadic reports and limited public awareness. Early cases were often obscured by the lack of understanding regarding child sexual exploitation and the reluctance to recognise organised criminal activity in this context. The true extent of the issue was not fully understood until the early 2000s when high-profile cases such as those in Rotherham, Rochdale, and Oxford began to emerge. Initial responses were characterised by denial, reluctance to confront the issue, and victim-blaming. The limited understanding of grooming gangs’ strategies and the sensitive nature of the subject matter contributed to a lack of urgency in addressing the problem. Moreover, some cases were dismissed as isolated incidents, further delaying comprehensive and effective interventions. Grooming gangs have adapted their methods over time, utilising technology, social media, and evolving recruitment strategies to exploit vulnerable individuals more efficiently. Advances in communication and the growing accessibility of the internet have enabled these groups to cast a wider net, making it easier to identify, groom, and control their victims.
Who do they target?
As seen in the past, grooming gangs tend to target children and young adults, often from low-income backgrounds, broken families, or marginalised communities. These victims may lack strong social support networks, making them more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation for sexual gains. Grooming gangs employ various recruitment strategies, including befriending, providing gifts, offering emotional support, and even feigning romantic interest. These tactics create a sense of trust and dependency, which the perpetrators then exploit to coerce the victims into sexual activity. Once a victim has been groomed, the gang may use physical force, emotional manipulation, or blackmail to maintain control over them. The victim may be sexually exploited within the gang or trafficked to other groups or individuals for financial gain.
Prerequisites that grooming gangs prey on
According to socio-economic experts, economic disparities and poverty create an environment where grooming gangs can more easily prey on vulnerable individuals, who may see the gangs’ initial offers of support, attention, and material goods as an attractive escape from their difficult circumstances. Grooming gangs often target victims from marginalised communities, where social isolation, distrust of authorities, and cultural barriers can make it difficult for individuals to seek help or report abuse. Inadequate child protection services, insufficient funding, staffing, and resources for child protection services hindered their ability to identify and support at-risk individuals, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation by grooming gangs. It was also found out that law enforcement agencies lacked the necessary resources, training, and expertise to effectively identify, investigate, and prosecute grooming gangs, allowing these criminal networks to continue operating with relative impunity.
Fuelling racial tension
Twice elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan strongly condemned the Home Secretary’s comments and equated them of starting a culture war by demeaning certain communities. Khan accused the Conservative Party to resorting to the tactics used by the Republican party in the US to ignite hatred and racial tensions by appeasing the right wing, particularly a couple of weeks ahead of local elections in May 2023.
Braverman’s comments sparked huge outcry in Britain, and she was found to be reinforcing harmful stereotypes that link individuals of Pakistani origin to criminal activity, particularly in the context of grooming gangs. This can contribute to the stigmatisation of the Pakistani community as a whole and may fuel racial tensions and discrimination. By focusing on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, Braverman’s comments over-simplified the complex factors that contribute to grooming gang activity. Grooming gangs are a multi-faceted issue influenced by socio-economic, cultural, and systemic factors, and it is essential to recognise that individuals from various backgrounds may be involved in these criminal networks. By emphasising the Pakistani origin of some perpetrators, Braverman’s comments may divert attention away from broader solutions that address the root causes of grooming gang activity. This focus could potentially hinder the development of comprehensive policy interventions that tackle the issue at its core.
Scapegoating the Pakistani community
“By focusing on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, Braverman and her ilk are engaging in a dangerous game of scapegoating that only serves to fuel division and hatred in our society,” says Dr Suhail Chughtai, Chairman of the World Congress of Overseas Pakistanis (WCOP), a UK-wide network of professionals of Pakistani origin. “We mustn’t forget that like all communities in Britain, the Pakistani community comprises hardworking, law-abiding citizens who contribute to the fabric of our nation. To paint them all with the same brush is not only unfair but also entirely counterproductive.”
Syed Qamar Raza, a former director of Conservative Friends of Pakistan and founder of WCOP was also furious at the Home Secretary’s comments. “Let’s get real here,” he says. “The issue of grooming gangs is complex and multifaceted, and cannot be solved by pointing fingers at one specific group. Instead, we need to examine the systemic failures and socio-cultural factors that have allowed these criminals to operate with impunity. If we’re serious about tackling this issue, we must address the root causes ― poverty, social exclusion, lack of resources for child protection services, and inadequate law enforcement training.”
A notable British entrepreneur of wide recognition Suleman Raza MBE shared his worries in reference to scapegoating: “Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s comments on grooming gangs have the potential to create new blind spots in Britain, as they emphasise a narrow and selective narrative that focuses on British-Pakistani males as the primary perpetrators of child sexual exploitation. By critically analysing the possible consequences of these comments, the negative impact becomes obvious by oversimplification of a complex issue, diverting attention from other offenders, ignoring victims from diverse backgrounds, strengthening far-right narratives, undermining trust in authorities.”
The backlash from British media
Various commentators in the British press criticised the Home Secretary’s recent statements on “grooming gangs” for veering into overtly racist territory, asserting that perpetrators are “almost all British-Pakistani” and that the victims are “overwhelmingly white girls from disadvantaged or troubled backgrounds.” The commentators at the BBC, Sky, The Guardian, and The Independent pointed out that the Home Secretary’s claims directly contradicted the findings of her own department’s 2020 report, which concluded that “group-based child sexual exploitation offenders are most commonly white” and that the victims, including boys, come from diverse backgrounds,. No reliable evidence was found to support the notion of ethnic disproportionality among such offenders.
Britain’s grim reality of child sexual abuse
“Child sexual abuse is alarmingly widespread,” says Barrister Farhan Farani, a notable legal expert commenting on the remarks in reference to the frequency of child abuse. “Current estimates indicate that over one in seven girls and one in 20 boys in the UK suffer from sexual abuse each year, accounting for half a million children. This abuse occurs across all societal segments and in various contexts, with the majority taking place within the family home. Recent focus on this issue has resulted in a notable increase in police-recorded child sexual offenses, exceeding 100,000 in 2021/22 in England and Wales. This increase also reflects the police’s efforts to address sexual abuse more seriously and offer better support to victims. However, there are still issues that need to be addressed, particularly in recognising the risks of sexual abuse among older children outside the home.”
Diverting attention from the real issue
Accusations of “political correctness” hindering effective responses to child sexual abuse are both selective and ill-informed. Blaming political correctness diverts attention from the widespread, well-documented shortcomings in addressing child sexual exploitation and abuse. Even in cases where racial sensitivities reportedly played a role, such as in Rotherham and Telford, they were identified as just one of many contributing factors, including under-resourcing and victim-blaming. It is implausible to suggest that ethnic minority offenders were routinely given leniency while their white counterparts were not.
Boils down to Islamophobia
Analysts also asserted that the British government’s narrative around protecting white girls from Pakistani-heritage men is actively harmful. It overlooks sexual abuse against boys and ethnic minority children and deflects attention from offenders who do not fit the stereotypes. By further mainstreaming far-right talking points and stigmatising entire communities as sexual predators, this narrative empowers Islamophobic action with potentially deadly consequences.
The self-contradictory Home Office report/ Britain’s confused Home Office
Asif Rangoonwala, chairperson of British Pakistan Foundation wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Sunak that stated the following facts: According to The Home Office’s 2020 report ‘The characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation in the community’ found that the majority of child sexual exploitation offenders are white. The report also states that a clear connection between ethnicity and this form of criminal activity cannot be established. Additionally, experts such as the Chief Executive of National Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Policing lead on child sexual abuse have warned against perpetuating such narratives, as it could create “new blind spots that prevent victims from being identified” and emphasised that “child abusers come from all segments of our society.” Recent convictions involving 21 individuals of diverse backgrounds, including both genders and “white” British ethnicity, who sexually abused young children in Walsall over a decade, also support this perspective.”
British society condemns Braverman
The Labour Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, called the comments a ‘dog whistle’ – a coded message designed to appeal to a certain group. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the BBC the Government’s plans were ‘far too inadequate for the scale of the problem’ and accused ministers of ‘chasing headlines’.
Rochdale grooming victim Sammy Woodhouse, who was 14 when she was abused, said it was wrong to ignore the race of the perpetrators, but questioned the timing of the announcement, ahead of May’s local elections.
Home secretary Suella Braverman has been accused of using “racist rhetoric” by Lady Sayeeda Warsi, a top Conservative peer and former co-chair of the party. “I think the Prime Minister has to get a really strong message that this kind of rhetoric, whether it’s on small boats, whether it’s the stuff she [Suella Braverman] was saying, which is not based on evidence, not nuanced, not kind of explanatory in anyway, it has got to stop,” she says speaking to LBC.
“Two days in from Braverman’s comments, the racists are out,” says the British actor Adil Ray, commenting on Braverman singling-out British Pakistani men as source for concern in grooming gangs. “Feels like post 9/11 and 7/7. British Pakistanis like me will be required to defend and explain heinous crimes. We never ask that of most of the population in regard to most cases of sexual abuse. We need allies.”
Braverman’s comments may cost the Conservative heavily in the North and in London. A petition for her removal from parliament for defamation of Pakistani people has already secured around 30,000 signatures. It’s vital that politicians are aware of the negative impact of their statements by engaging in open, honest, and constructive conversations about the challenges faced by communities, without succumbing to the temptation of scapegoating entire communities. The actions of a few should not dictate our perception of an entire community. Instead, we must focus on building a more inclusive, understanding, and cohesive society where no one is left behind.