In East London last night, another succession of acid attacks brought the area to a nervous halt. Five people were attacked with a corrosive substance which was thrown at them on the street, in the space of just 90 minutes. Just an hour and a half was all it took to put five innocent people in hospital – one with "life-changing injuries", according to police – and leave fear lingering.
One teenager has been arrested following last night's attacks, which police confirmed were all linked. It's thought that they were carried out by two men on a moped, in Stoke Newington, Hackney and Islington. The teenager is being held on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm with intent, and robbery – reports suggest that the aim was to steal motorbikes or mopeds.
Last night's attacks appear to be the latest shocking development in a growing trend. Just last month, Resham Khan was celebrating her 21st birthday when she was attacked with acid. Khan was travelling in a car, with her cousin, Jameel Mukhtar, 37, beside her in the driver’s seat. As they travelled through traffic lights in East London, a man tapped on their window. Seconds later, he sprayed them both with acid. They described screaming, their skin peeling away and clothes melting into their bodies. “Why would anyone do that to us?” a tearful Mukhtar later asked in a televised interview.
Khan and Mukhtar were both left with life-changing injuries. An acid attack is a form of violent assault defined as throwing acid or a corrosive substance with the intention to maim, disfigure or kill, leaving survivors with lasting physical and psychological damage. After the incident, Khan tweeted her story, and it quickly went viral. She and her cousin repeatedly stated that they were targeted because of their religion and Islamophobia – their white attacker was unknown to them – and the attack was also rightfully reclassified as a “hate crime” by the police. John Tomlin, a 25-year-old man from Canning Town, was charged with two counts of grievous bodily harm with intent after handing himself in over the attack on Sunday. He appeared at Thames Magistrates’ Court yesterday, smiling and blowing kisses at his “supporters” during the hearing.
As acid attacks grow in their number in the UK, it seems the perpetrators are gaining confidence at a frightening rate. While the vast majority of acid attacks occur in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa – with over 1,000 reported incidents taking place in India each year, although the true figures are thought to be much higher – UK acid attacks have seen a sharp rise in the past five years. Metropolitan Police recorded a total of 1,489 separate incidents in London during 2011 and 2016, with Newham (the borough where Khan and Mukhtar were attacked) coming top of the list and accounting for 398 of the total. Additionally, a Freedom of Information request revealed that the number of reported attacks involving corrosive fluid has risen by 74 per cent, from 259 in 2011, to 454 in 2016. Last year also saw “a peak of around 700 incidents” across the whole of the UK, says Jaf Shah, executive director of support group The Acid Survivors Trust International.
There needs to serious sentences for people who use acid and there needs to be a stricter law for its purchase, to keep the public safe
And, globally, women and girls are disproportionately targeted by men during these attacks – another exertion of power, and an attempt, perhaps, to take away the one thing women and girls are valued for above all else: their appearance. According to data collated by A.S.T.I. there are more female victims of acid attacks around the world – yet this is in stark contrast to the UK, where more than two thirds of victims are male. Although it is difficult to gauge the true level of attacks, “early indications are that the majority of perpetrators are young white men and the majority of victims tend to be white men as well,” Shah tells me.
Additionally, figures from a request to the NHS show that there were 98 hospital admissions due to “assault by corrosive substance” between April 2016 and February 2017. But why exactly are acid attacks on the rise? And how do we put a stop to them?
“It is about time that the law changes for the purchase of corrosive acid – right now anyone can buy it easily from any hardware store,” writes, Sarmad Ismail, whose petition calling for the prohibition of the purchase of acid without a license, recently hit 300,000 signatures. Currently, no specific legislation exists to dissuade future perpetrators from purchasing acid, with a number of household products that contain high levels of concentration, such as drain cleaner – available over the counter.
“I think it’s very easy for people to purchase acid, if you type sulphuric acid into Google you can literally buy a 500ml bottle of 96 per cent purity for as little as £6,” Ismail tells me. “There needs to serious sentences for people who use acid and there needs to be a stricter law for its purchase, to keep the public safe.”
And, Shah says, there are other potential measures which could be implemented by the government to act as a deterrent. “You could also make it a specific offence to be carrying products that have concentrated acid,” Shah adds, “At the moment you can purchase concentrated acid without I.D., and so if you make it an offence like carrying a knife and a gun, you’d be charged for possession.”
Acid attacks are increasing year-on-year and until a stricter licensing system is put in place to combat these assaults and to deter future perpetrators, the figure will unfortunately continue to rise. Whether this is tighter laws and tougher sentences or age limits and non-cash sales, what is clear, is that the issue needs to be prioritised in order to save more lives from being irrevocably changed. The government needs to act now.
NOTE: This article was originally published on July 12, and updated in light of new attacks on July 14.