Justice

Failures to protect vulnerable children in Manchester expose how indifferent we remain towards voiceless victims

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Greater Manchester Police closed down an investigation into a paedophile ring in 2005, despite identifying nearly 100 potential abusers. 

This shocking fact made regional headlines last week after a review of Operation Augusta, the original investigation, concluded that victims of the paedophile ring were ignored and left unsupported because the police feared upsetting race relations. 

The identified victims were mainly white girls, often in the care system. Their abusers were mainly Asian men, of Pakistani heritage. Much is made of this fact, and it would be wrong to ignore the patterns that emerged in Manchester and Rochdale. Data does suggest that the specific type of on street grooming that took place in these cases may be disproportionately carried out by Asian males. 

But as Nazir Afzal, the former lead on child sexual abuse for the Crown Prosecution Service, observed, in small towns, the night-time economy – taxis, takeaways and the like –  is often controlled by Asian communities. The opportunities to come into contact with and exploit vulnerable young girls are undoubtedly higher for someone who works in such an environment. Yes, Pakistani culture can be deeply conservative, and patriarchal attitudes certainly contributed to the abusers behaving as they did, but why were these men allowed to act with impunity by the forces that could have stopped them?

Writing in The Guardian, Manchester Evening News’s politics and investigations editor Jennifer Williams observed that coverage of the review into Operation Augusta was limited. She felt that the revelations of police failure had not generated the outrage that they should have. For her, it was a sign: ‘some female victims are seen as less important than others’.

Because while fears of upsetting race relations may have played on some officers’ minds in 2005, the fact that these superseded the horror of scores of abused and exploited teenagers shows how undervalued this set of victims were. 

Indeed, in the case of Operation Augusta, initially opened after 15 year old Victoria Agoglia died from a heroin overdose while in the care of Manchester City Council, police had mounting evidence of the crimes that were taking place. The review found that Victoria’s carers knew she had been subjected to ‘multiple threats, sexual assaults and serious sexual exploitation’, and also had heard that she was being ‘injected with heroin by an older Asian man’. Nothing was done by her carers, social workers, or even the police. 

It was the same for so many other girls, who gave evidence to the police only for the investigation into their traumatic abuse to be halted. 

Though they were victims, the girls at the centre of this were repeatedly referred to as ‘child prostitutes’ by those investigating – as though they had some sort of agency. Their abusers were referred to as ‘pimps’ – as though they were in a working relationship with the girls. While many sex workers are also exploited, classing these children as such created a lexis wherein what was happening to the girls was normalised. 

In the 2017 BBC documentary The Betrayed Girls, it becomes clear that Operation Augusta was riven with misconception and prejudice. The prosecutor’s comments during the original investigation suggested that the girls had simply made their own life choices. They were seen as having active tendencies to abscond, misuse drugs and have older boyfriends; no one perceived them as at risk individuals upon whom these circumstances had descended. They may have been troubled children with dysfunctional lives, but that should have made authorities more protective of them, rather than indifferent to their plight. 

Under cross-examination in court, Shabir Ahmed, ringleader of the Rochdale grooming gang actually argued that white communities themselves had failed the girls. After accusing his victims of being prostitutes with real business acumen, he went on to say that the girls only sought him and his fellow abusers out because they had been failed by the system in which they lived. He is and was a man full of racism, misogyny and lies. But he had spotted something. The people who should have been protecting these girls had simply turned a blind eye to the problems they were experiencing. And it is because of this, and because exploitative individuals such as Ahmed could see this, that those girls became victims for such extended periods of time. 

These girls were some of the most vulnerable in our society. Many of them were in care, and they were all so young. They were voiceless. In a fair and caring society, voiceless individuals are given a platform and facilitated to speak. Here, the voicelessness of these victims was seen as a get-out clause, a means by which authorities could push this tricky case to one side. Their attackers knew this, and deliberately preyed upon the girls. Undoubtedly, these men saw their victims as without value; but they were also exacerbating a pattern where these girls had been undervalued by the system under which they lived for far too long. 

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