‘Acid attacks have occurred in the UK for 200 years’
As MPs debate laws over acid sales following a rise in attacks, Jaf Shah explains the UK’s history of such violence.
After a spate of recent acid attacks in the United Kingdom, British politicians are set to debate regulations around selling corrosive substances.
Monday evening’s parliament session follows a number of assaults, at least two in east London, over the past few weeks.
Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, whose constituents have been directly affected, motioned the debate.
Several politicians have weighed in over recent days, with discussions focused on sales and sentencing.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, wrote in a newspaper: “I am clear that life sentences must not be reserved for acid attack survivors.”
Her remarks on Sunday came days after two teenage boys on mopeds hurled acid at five victims, leaving at least one with life-changing injuries.
Al Jazeera asked Jaf Shah, head of Acid Survivors Trust International, why attacks are rising in Britain, whether enough is being done to curb assaults, and why religious and ethnic minorities are blamed, despite often being victims themselves.
Al Jazeera: How quickly are acid attacks on the rise in Britain?
Jaf Shah: In 2016, there were 720 recorded attacks. That was a number that had doubled nationally over a three-year period.
The “hot spots” for attacks are London, Essex, Northumbria. The West Midlands also seems to have a fairly high number of attacks.
Al Jazeera: What is the government doing, and are politicians’ efforts enough?
Shah: Politicians are looking to review existing laws such as controlling the sale of acid and preventing cash sales to aid investigations. Young perpetrators are committing these attacks, so introducing age restrictions [is being reviewed]. The home secretary has indicated they would look at life sentences.
I won’t be happy until acid attacks stop. There is still a way to go yet. Legislation has not been passed yet.
We have been pushing for tighter controls since 2015 when we released a study looking at legislation in the UK. It revealed there were weaknesses in legislation and loopholes around sentencing issues.
Al Jazeera: A lot of online chatter on social media and blogs centres around blaming religious and ethnic minorities for importing cultures tolerant of such attacks to Britain, that acid attacks are somehow an “eastern” phenomenon…
Shah: That’s not true. Acid attacks have occurred in the UK for 200 years. They’re recorded in popular fiction. In Graham Greene’s famous book [Brighton Rock], Pinkie walks around with a small bottle of acid for protection.
The issue of acid attacks is linked initially to industry. During the Industrial Revolution, acid was manufactured in vast quantities to treat metals and cotton. It became a weapon of choice back then.
In 1832, a journal described it as a “stain on the national character”.
The first recorded acid attack sentencing was on a 21-year-old man in 1833 who attacked a fellow worker while he slept.
It originated in Europe and was quite prevalent in the UK.
Al Jazeera: Some British survivors have launched a campaign for more government action. What physical and psychological trauma do victims of acid attacks have to live with?
Shah: It depends on the severity of the attack, and that would depend on the concentration of the corrosiveness of the substance, and quantity.
It’s not unusual for survivors to go through sometimes hundreds of surgeries over a
number of years.
READ MORE: UK acid attack survivors demand government action
In terms of psychological trauma, victims have to come to terms with the disfigurement of their facial appearance.
Many survivors will go through anxiety, panic attacks, fear, depression, social isolation, loneliness and suicidal thoughts.
The path to recovery is very long and requires an integrated approach.
Al Jazeera: What can previous attacks teach us?
Shah: We don’t have a clear picture of the problem in the UK due to differing databases.
For example, a hospital in London may have different data collection [processes] to another hospital halfway down the road [regarding burn victims]. They need a standardised approach to collecting data.
Who are the perpetrators? Which parts of London are affected? Which substances are being used? Who are the victims? What are the motivations?
It’s a complicated picture. In the UK, there are a large number of attacks of men on women. But we’re also seeing robbery-related attacks, hate crime attacks and unprovoked attacks.
Once there is a better understanding, there can be a more targeted response. You can try and reach affected communities.
What we do know is that there are two clear trends. In the UK two thirds of victims are male – that goes against global patterns. But there is still an alarming number of gender-based attacks. The vast majority of perpetrators in the UK are young men – that ties in with the global pattern.
We need to educate and work with young men and boys to bring about change because clearly we have a problem with young men resorting to violence and using acid as a weapon of choice.
Follow Anealla on Twitter: @anealla