By May Robson
The case of the “Asian grooming gang” from the Rochdale area of Greater Manchester is notorious. Over a two-year period, a group of nine men plied young girls with food, alcohol and drugs in order to sexually exploit them. The men were sentenced in May 2012, following a high-profile trial. Media reports depicted the Asian descent and Muslim faith of the men as having central relevance to the crimes. What has been less widely reported is that in February 2017, four of the nine Rochdale sex-offenders were stripped of their British citizenship. These four men were naturalised citizens with dual Pakistani-British nationality. They now face a double penalty: in addition to being punished through the criminal justice system, they will be deported from the UK after serving their sentences.
Citizenship “stripping” laws were first developed and extended in the context of anti-terror policies. Shortly after the 7/7 London bombings, an amendment to the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill made the only requirement for citizenship-stripping the Home Secretary’s belief that it is “conducive to the public good”. In Parliament, the Labour government defended this move as “necessary to fight the domestic terrorist threat”, on the grounds that it would be used “extremely sparingly”.
The crimes of the Rochdale sex-offenders, though abhorrent, were nothing to do with terrorism. The case marks an unprecedented extension of these powers to non-terror related criminal offences. What links the terrorist to the sex-offender, and what does this tell us about the transformation of citizenship in Britain today? Of those subject to deportation, the “home-grown” terrorist and the “Asian” sex offender seem to gain the least public sympathy. But what makes the recent drive to prioritise their deportation via citizenship-stripping such a point of consensus?
Since 2011, “on-street grooming” has become the centre of a media-induced moral panic in the UK. It has been constructed as a new crime threat, perpetrated by “Asian gangs” who seek out young and vulnerable white girls for sexual abuse. Andrew Norfolk, Chief Investigative Reporter for The Times, was heralded for his instrumental role in breaking the ‘grooming’ scandal in January 2011, revealing the sexual exploitation of girls in northern England. Norfolk claimed to have uncovered “a crime model that police and care agencies refused to recognise – that most of the victims were white and the majority of those in identified abuse networks were men of Pakistani origin.”
In the media and political furore surrounding the Rochdale case, Norfolk’s “Asian model” of grooming framed the debate. The crimes were presented as a product of the race, religion and culture of the perpetrators. According to former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, grooming gangs were the logical consequence of the dangerous sexuality of South Asian men “fizzing and popping with testosterone” who, trapped in arranged marriages, saw white girls as “easy meat”. Similarly, while acknowledging the prejudice surrounding the discussion of grooming, and the lack of reliable statistics, an editorial in The Guardian concluded that “different cultures do give rise to different violent pathologies.” Misogyny – and its expression in sexual abuse and violence – is constructed as an imported cultural problem, determined by a ‘patriarchal’ Islamic culture.
In the racist imaginary, all South Asian Muslim men have been situated as potential groomers and all white girls as potential victims. In public discourse, this is manifested in frequent calls for the South Asian community, and for Muslim leaders and organisations in particular, to apologise for the crimes of individuals or accept their communal culpability. Where blame has been ascribed to the authorities, it has been posited as an institutional cover-up due to fears of appearing racist. As a result, other sources of accountability have been side-lined: in particular, the failures of local authorities, police and social services to safeguard vulnerable children in increasingly privatised care homes. The Rochdale case has become the horror story of British multiculturalism gone too far.
The racialised coverage of the Rochdale case has established a link between immigration and crime that is absent from accounts of child sexual exploitation by white perpetrators. This is thrown into sharp relief by the limited media coverage of strikingly similar cases of grooming which unfolded at roughly the same time with one key difference: the offenders were white. A case in Derby in July 2012, in which seven of the eight sex offenders were white, failed to make headlines as it did not conform to the newsworthy model of sex crime as racial crime. In fact, only The Guardian and The Times reported on the story, and the race and religion of the offenders were markedly absent in the newspapers’ interpretations of the crimes.
By contrast, the inordinate amount of coverage sparked by the Rochdale case reproduced prejudices about the imagined sexual deviance, backward gender norms, and violence of the racialised male other. Moral panics about foreign criminals are hardly new, and manifest most commonly around fears of sexual violence. In the post-war years, the image of West Indian pimps said to be “living off the bodies of white women” was used to rouse public support for greater immigration controls. Similarly, an apparent rise in a new form of crime – “mugging” – in the 1970s, of which the archetypal victim was an elderly white women preyed upon by a young black man, was used to win popular consent for a more authoritarian, “law-and-order” model of crime control.
In the post-9/11 era, the “Asian grooming gang” stands at the intersection of these older law-and-order forms of racism and newer, securitised narratives of a terrorist threat. The British South Asian community is transformed into a suspect population, ever on the cusp of radicalisation, and now also responsible for sexual exploitation of children. Norfolk made this link explicit in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017, when he argued that terrorists and sex-offenders “unite in their contempt for white girls”. It is at the conjuncture of racialised discourses of immigration, crime and terror that the removal of citizenship is legitimised: making ‘failed’ citizens into deportable subjects.
The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act (2006) enshrined citizenship in the UK as a privilege, not a right, long before this formulation became Theresa May’s favourite catchphrase. The new law made citizenship conditional on an assessment of “unacceptable behaviour” by the Home Secretary, “informed, but not wholly constrained by” a list of offences that human rights organisations have criticised for its “vagueness and breadth”. As the threat of “Asian grooming gangs” has crept into national consciousness, this potentially limitless list – ultimately subject to the Home Secretary’s discretion – has been easily expanded. The Rochdale perpetrators are not being deported because they are sex offenders. They are being deported because they are Asian sex offenders. When race and religion become the explanatory framework for toxic masculinity, grooming can be presented as a foreign threat to British values.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pending deportation of convicted sex offenders has provoked little outrage or interest. However, the repellent nature of these men’s crimes should not be allowed to conceal the alarming implications of the decision to take away their UK citizenship. A line has been crossed and a legal precedent created: a new, political power of secondary punishment for non-terrorist offences now exists in practice. Moreover, if citizenship is a privilege, the Rochdale case shows us that this privilege is distributed along profoundly racialised lines, beginning with the most vilified criminals in society.
Since the election of the Conservative-led government in 2010, there has been an exponential increase in citizenship-stripping, while cuts to legal aid and reduced grounds for appeal have diminished people’s capacity to challenge immigration decisions. In the first eight years following the introduction of these powers in 2002, citizenship-stripping was used only four times. Between 2010 and 2015, however, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, stripped the citizenship of 33 people. Meanwhile, the “hostile environment” policies introduced under the 2014 Immigration Act have made it harder for all migrants in the UK to access work, housing and services or to live without fear of deportation.
In her apology to Caribbean leaders following the recent Windrush scandal, Amber Rudd, responsible for immigration policy as then Home Secretary, described the treatment of these British citizens as ‘appalling’. According to May, it was a mere glitch in the system she had created, an unintended consequence of clamping down on ‘illegal immigrants’. The Windrush generation have since been reclaimed as our own, bought back into the national fold through constant reminders that they are not illegal immigrants but good citizens. Yet, this is not a glitch in the system. This is the system, the extreme edge of which can be seen in the case of the Rochdale “Asian grooming gang”. By making deportable this group of failed citizens, lacking the newfound public sympathy of Windrush citizens, the boundaries of belonging have been shifted and the hostile environment expanded. We should not be surprised then when these structures of exclusion are easily extended to other groups who have spent their lives in Britain. While child sex offenders do not provoke a sympathetic response, we must pay attention to the trend their deportation signals: the racialised erosion of citizenship and the tightening of boundaries of belonging.
May Robson is an MSc International Politics graduate at SOAS, specialising in migration, race and gender. She works with Survivors Speak OUT, a survivor-led activist network based at Freedom From Torture and is a founding member of Bare Life Films, a production company currently making a documentary about access to healthcare for migrants. She is on Twitter as @mrbsn.