At Sheffield Crown Court throughout September and October, eight men sat in the dock accused of rape and other sexual crimes against four girls, three aged 13 and one 16. The case resulted in five being convicted and three acquitted. All of the eight defendants were Pakistani Muslims and the girls white British. Does this matter? Not for the reasons the British National Party would have us believe, but it is nonetheless significant.
Razwan Razaq, 30, his 24-year-old brother Umar, Muhammed Zafran Ramzan, 21, Adil Hussain, 20, and Mohsin Khan, 21, were sent to prison for between four-and-a-half to 11 years.
The crimes were committed in and around Rotherham, a fairly typical south Yorkshire town. Although unemployment is fairly high, Rotherham is now also a popular summer visitors' destination when All Saints Square is transformed into a seaside beach. Every month, there is a farmers' market that sells produce from local farmers and traders, and Jamie Oliver's TV series, Jamie's Ministry of Food, tried to teach the town's inhabitants to establish healthy eating as part of daily life.
But many parents are concerned far more with the safety of their children than with organic food. Rotherham, along with many other towns, cities and villages in northern England has become infected with the vile activities of criminal gangs using children as currency. While child sexual abuse occurs in every community and culture, what is happening in Rotherham and elsewhere in Yorkshire and Lancashire is organised pimping of girls by Asian gangs who trade their victims for cash and favours.
"These men all know and trust each other," says Jane, the mother of one of the victims. "They don't abuse these girls because they are Muslim, but because they are criminals who think they are above the law."
Although there is no hard evidence of financial gain in the Rotherham case, child protection professionals tell me that the pattern in such cases is that the girls are traded for cash as well as favours between criminals. A number of the gangs operating in the region have found that the sharp drop in the price of drugs has led them to losing considerable income, and that selling girls is increasingly filling the gap.
Jane's daughter Sophie (not their real names) was a happy, ordinary 12-year-old until she met a group of adult males who would control every aspect of her life. Before she escaped, a year later, Sophie had been raped by the gang members as a way of "breaking her in" and then passed around various other men for sex.
The methods used by the pimps are sophisticated and sinister. First, the girls are identified in locations, such as parks, schools, leisure facilities and shopping malls after which boys of their age are sent to befriend them. After a friendship is established, the boys introduce their contacts to young men whom they often describe as cousins.
Then the grooming process gets really under way. The young man will take the girl out in his car, give her vodka, cigarette and cannabis, and take her to venues she would not normally experience until older.
Often giving the girl a mobile telephone as a "gift", the pimp is then able to track her every move by calls and texting, which eventually will be used by him to send instructions as to details of arrangements with punters. The men sell the girls on to contacts for around £200 a time or as currency for a business deal. "I was always asked why I kept going back to my pimp," says Sophie, "but they flatter you and make you think you are really loved. I thought he was my boyfriend until it was too late to get away." Another tactic of the pimp is getting the girl to despise and mistrust her own parents in order that he can achieve total control over her. The pimps routinely tell their victims that their parents are racist towards Asian people and that they disapprove of the relationships because the men are of Pakistani Muslim heritage, not because they are older. Some of the parents I met were racist, and some had developed almost a phobia against Asian men, fuelled by the misinformation and bigotry trotted out by racist groups in response to the pimping gangs.
The Leeds-based Coalition for the Removal of Pimping (Crop) supports the families of children caught up in sexual exploitation networks. Crop is understandably reticent about commenting on any issues concerning the race or religion of child abusers and pimps. As far as it is concerned, we should not focus on one particular ethnic group because the problem is about men's abuse of children. Its research earlier this decade found that the vast majority of the children groomed are white and the majority of perpetrators of Asian origin. "Society seeks to condemn female sexual activity, and culturally within the statutory sector and community the victims are seen as asking for it," says Crop's Rachel Loise. "The perpetrators are the last to be condemned. Prosecutions are rare, and sentencing is not severe enough."
Unfortunately, the reluctance of the various anti-child abuse campaigns and charities to engage openly with the fact that, in the north of England, the majority of men involved in child-grooming criminal gangs are Pakistani Muslim means that racist organisations such as the BNP hijack the issue.
"The fact that these particular gangs are made up of Pakistani men is significant but not in the way racists would have us believe," says one child protection expert who asked not to be named. "While the BNP would have us believe that abusing white girls is an endemic part of these men's culture — which it absolutely is not — the truth is that these men are aware that the police do not want to be accused of racism in today's climate."
In 2004, Channel 4 withdrew Edge of the City, its controversial documentary made by Annie Hall that depicted parents trying to stop groups of young Asian men grooming white girls as young as 11 for sex. It had been seized on by the BNP as a party political broadcast.
Colin Cramphorn, the then Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, joined groups such as Unite against Fascism in calling for the documentary to be withdrawn. Channel 4 complied, saying that the issue was not censorship but timing because of the proximity with the local and European elections. But many argued at the time that the delay in transmission had strengthened the case of the BNP.
After the film was withdrawn, one of the mothers sent Annie Hall a text message: "It's a real shame when votes come before young girls' lives."
For many white girls growing up in fairly traditional communities, the unfamiliarity of boys and men from different ethnic backgrounds can be exciting and attractive.
"The man I thought was my boyfriend used to dress really well and always smelt nice," says Sophie, "and I thought it were dead nice the way he talked, and even his manners seemed better than boys I were used to."
Emma Jackson knows exactly how the pimping gangs operate in Rotherham because she was also a victim of one. When Emma was 12, she was befriended by Asian boys around her own age who soon introduced her to relatives in their twenties and thirties.
Emma had no idea she was being groomed and brainwashed until one day, totally out of the blue, she was taken to wasteland and raped by the gang leader. The attack was watched by laughing gang members and recorded on a number of mobile phones.
"People ask me why I kept going back to Tarik, even after he raped me," says Emma, "but he threatened to firebomb my home and rape my own mother if I tried to escape."
Emma now gives support, through a charity set up to prevent the sexual abuse of children, to a number of victims of pimping gangs and has found that the girls are being targeted at an even younger age.
"The gangs want virgins and girls who are free of sexual diseases. Most of the men buying sex with the girls have Muslim wives and they don't want to risk infection. The younger you look, the more saleable you are."
One youth worker in south Yorkshire told me that because religious Muslims are being pressurised to marry virgins within their own extended family networks, it means that some are more likely to view white girls as easily available and "safer" than Pakistani girls.
When I first wrote about the issue of Asian grooming gangs in 2007, my name was included on the website Islamophobia Watch: Documenting anti-Muslim Bigotry. So was that of Ann Cryer, the former Labour MP for Keighley in Yorkshire, who had been at the forefront of attempting to tackle the problem, after receiving requests for help from some of the parents of children caught up with the gangs in her constituency.
According to some of the mothers, a fear of being branded racist makes many of the police and social services reluctant to investigate the crimes as organised and connected. One mother from Rotherham, whose 14-year-old daughter was groomed into prostitution and multiply raped during a 12-month period, told me that almost every man convicted of these crimes in the north of England is from Pakistan but that the authorities insist that it is not relevant.
There are, however, a growing number of individuals within the Muslim communities who are willing to speak out against the criminals. Mohammed Shafiq, the director of the Lancashire-based Ramadhan Foundation, a charity working for peaceful harmony between different ethnic communities, advocates better education about sexual exploitation to be disseminated through imams and other community leaders.
"I was one of the first within the Muslim community to speak out about this, four years ago," says Shafiq, "and at the time I received death threats from some black and Asian people. But what I said has been proved right — that if we didn't tackle it there would be more of these abusers and more girls getting harmed."
Shafiq says he is "disgusted" to hear some perpetrators refer to their victims as "white trash". He adds: "I say to them, would you treat your sister or daughter like this?"
Joyce Thacker, the strategic director of the children and young people's services directorate at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, has a vast amount of experience in dealing with sexual exploitation of young people. She says that it is "interesting" to note that most of the men involved are Asian but that it is primarily an issue of the abuse of children by older men.
"What about the younger boys who are sent to befriend the girls in the first place?" says Thacker, "Are they also victims of abuse? Certainly we need to ensure that more work is done within all communities that explores positive, healthy relationships, or these young men may end up being the abusers themselves."
Rotherham-based Apna Haq offers support for women and their children suffering domestic abuse. Its director Zlakha Ahmed told me that much of the community express their disgust at what came out in the recent trial in private and that there needs to be more public discussion of the issues. "This abuse is appalling and needs to be raised within the community. There are still people denying that it happens so the more of us who speak out about it the better."
Emma Jackson is now 22 and devotes much of her time raising awareness about grooming networks among child-protection workers, police officers and the general community. Much remains to be done, she says, to end the complacency in dealing with the criminal gangs. "I didn't have much help from police or agencies because grooming and sexual exploitation had not been recognised and understood when it happened to me. Now it has, I think it's important that all agencies work together to protect these children and their families to help stamp out the problem."
These gangs will be allowed to operate with impunity if we deny their existence in some sort of twisted attempt to be anti-racist and culturally sensitive. Some people, including many white liberals, are loath to admit what it is going on. If we do not tackle the problem head-on, and work together to combat this dreadful abuse of children, the only beneficiaries will be the extremists.
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