Over the past two years, crimes involving noxious or corrosive substances, including acid, have risen dramatically. Although a nationwide problem, acid attacks in London rose from 261 in 2015 to 454 in 2016, a rise of 74 per cent, with more than 1,800 attacks involving the use of corrosive fluid. A recent spate of acid attacks on Muslims in east London has led to many London Muslims being scared to leave their homes.
Not all victims report the crimes, however, because of the fear of reprisals. Even when convicted, a perpetrator, if released, can change his or her identity and build a new life, whereas the victims are left with a life sentence of horrendous physical and emotional scars. The underreporting shows the lack of confidence victims have that acid attacks are treated seriously.
With the rise in Islamophobia, it is not clear if the recent acid attacks on Muslims are pre-emptive of, or an extension of, the terror attack on Finsbury Mosque, hate crimes or vicious assaults. There is little media coverage on acid attacks - particularly when the victims are Muslim - and much less investigation on the nature and causes of the sharp increase.
Media and the call for change in legislation
In the recent acid attack in Beckton, East London, Jameel Muhktar and his cousin Resham Khan were left with life-changing injuries when a man threw acid through their car window as they sat in traffic. Although treated as a hate crime, Muhktar suggested that had the perpetrator been Asian and the victims an English couple, it would be classed as a terror attack.
To target Muslims or any minority group in an attack is a barrier to community cohesion, tolerance and peace. This is compounded if the minority group feels their concerns are not being taken seriously by mainstream authorities. The media has a duty to report fairly and to place equal importance on any attack, regardless of the victim or offender's background. Equally, the Government has a responsibility to enforce restrictions on the sale of certain substances - in stores or via the internet - that could potentially be used in a personal attack and to regard acid no differently to other weapons.
Jaf Shah, Executive Director of Acid Survivors Trust International said that whilst those using acid as a weapon are often charged with grievous bodily harm, the use of knives and guns is considered by the courts to be more serious, which suggests that more people are using acid as a weapon of choice.
Restrictions on the sale of sulphuric acid were introduced in 2015, yet up to 98% concentrated sulphuric acid can be bought on the internet, with no basic checks, so despite the restrictions, it is still possible to obtain it easily and cheaply. A licensing system needs to be enforced to ensure that the details of people buying such substances are recorded. Nevertheless, equally harmful substances such as drain cleaner, chromic acid solution, ammonia and patio cleaner are readily available over the counter.
Aside from imposing restrictions on the sale of noxious fluids, acid attacks should be regarded in law as lethal as other weapons and harsh sentences should be handed out to those who use corrosive substances to deliberately disfigure someone. A petition launched by Sarmad Ismail to prohibit the purchase of acid to those without a licence has attracted over 330,000 supporters to convince the Home Office to change the laws around the sale of acid. The petition, along with a Stand Up to Racism peaceful vigil for acid victims and hate crime on 5th July 2017, shows that victims are been supported by communities and that pressure groups are urging lawmakers to make a change so that perpetrators face tougher sentences.
An attack on the self and identity
London boroughs with large Muslim communities, Newham, Barking & Dagenham, Tower Hamlets, Havering and Redbridge, were the top five boroughs where the most acid attacks have occurred. Muslim residents feel frightened and vulnerable, particularly women. Victims should not live in fear of reprisals or not being taken seriously if they report these crimes. No doubt underreporting is another factor that has led to an increase in these chemicals being used as the ultimate weapon of choice.
But using acid on people results in "life changing" injuries and has an impact on self and identity. Mohammad Jawad, a plastic surgeon who helped rebuild acid attack victim Katie Piper's face has said that the crime is also about trying to destroy someone's identity. As a politician and campaigner, I would seek to work with all residents, community and political groups of different persuasions to ensure that all our communities are supported and protected.