On 25 January Tulip Siddiq, shadow economic secretary to the Treasury, asked the prime minister about the 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children who remain missing after disappearing from government-provided accommodation since July 2021. In the exchange, the Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis, an ex-teacher, was heard to shout: “Well they shouldn’t have come here illegally.”
His response is very reminiscent of the views of teachers, social workers and police officers when teenage girls from Rotherham, Oxford and other UK cities were trafficked and sexually abused by older men. The underlying assumption of many professionals at the time was that running away from home, being looked after (in care), or being sexually advanced for their age were signs of promiscuity that should be punished, rather than abuse that should be prevented.
The abuse of girls was ignored as professionals considered that the girls were ‘putting themselves at risk’; that they acted in full knowledge of the consequences of their behaviour; and, if they really did not want to be abused by taxi drivers and men working in late night food outlets, then they should have stayed at home – even if that home was abusive.
An attitude rooted in the past and beset with ignorance
The vulnerability of the girls from Rotherham and elsewhere is much better understood now, and the views expressed at the time – that the girls merited very little entitlement to protection – are now widely considered abhorrent.
Yet, it is exactly those same views that Gullis echoed in the Commons. He deemed vulnerable migrant children, under the care of the state, to be less worthy than other children. He implied they were complicit in their own abuse by coming to the country illegally, and were more ‘knowing’ about the likely consequences of their behaviour.
Grooming gangs were able to get away with their abuse for so long because no one cared about the girls. It took years of effort by their families (often foster or adoptive families) and whistleblowers before action was taken against the perpetrators. Once enquiries began, the scale of the problem and the scale of state indifference was revealed.
Home Office complacency tantamount to complicity
The Home Office, in placing vulnerable children in unsuitable accommodation and permitting their whereabouts to be known, is effectively acting as a coordinator for those who would seek to abuse them. It has created the structures within which child abuse thrives – a publicised pool of easily identifiable vulnerable children with a history of prior abuse, without adults to protect them or act on their behalf.
Modern slavery legislation and the National Referral Mechanism introduced in 2015 offers some protections. Those who are identified as vulnerable can be protected as such. But Home Office dispersal arrangements are preventing sufficient enquires regarding risk and need, and it intends to make the protections more difficult to access, thus opening up the potential for more abusers and traffickers to enter the market.
Government and MPs should be held to account
Following the ‘grooming gang’ scandals, a teacher (or other professional working with young people) would now be considered unsuitable for the role if they expressed the views held then – that children are responsible for their own abuse and should not be protected.
It must be hoped that, should he lose his seat in the next election, Gullis’s views regarding migrant young people will render him unsuited to any role requiring contact with young people, or in policies in respect of them. The government too must be held accountable for the abuse missing migrant children are likely to be experiencing. Alexis Jay completed her report in 2014, nearly ten years ago. Public officials can no longer hide behind ignorance.