What's Being Done About the Huge Rise in Acid Attacks?
Instances of the horrific crime have doubled in the UK over the past couple of years.
Acid attack survivor Samir Hussain (Photo: Grant Armour)
"It's hard to describe the pain, because it's something that's eating at your flesh and you can't stop it, no matter what you do," says Samir Hussain – who, in August of 2015, was scarred for life after a man threw acid over his face in a Crawley car park. "I clutched my face and my eyes, because I could barely open them. After that I ran to my car to get a bottle of water and try to wash my face down, but by then I think the damage was pretty much done."
Hussain, 28, was the victim of an unprovoked acid attack. He's spent the last two years in and out of hospital for skin grafts, and must now wear a mask 24/7 to reduce the scarring on his face. In February, his assailant was sentenced to eight years in jail for assault and grievous bodily harm with intent.
I spoke to Hussain for the new VICE Reports documentary Acid Attacks, and he's probably one of the bravest people I've ever met. After the assault, he says, he couldn't just sit at home – he went back to work, where he interacts with members of the public every day. (He doesn't want to say what he does for safety reasons.)
"I don't struggle to talk about it with people," he says, "because it's in your face, really... I've got used to explaining myself."
Hussain is now working with the Acid Survivors Trust International to raise awareness of acid attacks, which have doubled in the UK over the past couple of years.
WATCH: VICE Reports – Acid Attacks
In London alone there have been 1,800 acid attacks since 2010. Over the last month, university student Resham Khan and her cousin had acid thrown in their faces as they were sitting in traffic, and six moped riders were assaulted in a 72-minute crime spree in Hackney, Islington and Shoreditch. Just this Tuesday, a pregnant woman and her partner were sprayed with a corrosive substance in Mile End.
These days, it isn't unusual to open up Facebook and see people linking to articles about what you should do in case of an acid attack (pour cool water over yourself, and lots of it), or sharing petitions calling on the government to clamp down on the sale of corrosive liquids – this Change.org petition already has close to half a million signatures.
Experts say that the likelihood of the average Londoner getting caught up in an acid attack is low – and the number of cases in the capital is nothing compared to the rising levels of knife crime. But as someone who's lived in almost every borough targeted by acid attacks, I understand why people are scared. There's something uniquely terrifying about the idea of getting doused in something that could burn your skin off, melt bone and destroy your nerve endings.
"Acid is becoming a preferred weapon for criminals," Stephen Timms, the MP for Newham, tells me. Almost 25 percent of all acid attacks in London take place in Newham, including the Beckton assault on Resham Khan and her cousin. "It is easy to obtain, very cheap – available, for example, in pound shops – and hard to trace back to the perpetrator.
"According to Metropolitan Police figures, only two of the acid attacks in the last year have been hate crimes, including the one in Beckton. The rest are connected with gang violence and robbery. The relative difficulty of acquiring firearms in the UK, and tighter restrictions on knives, makes acid potentially less risky for those wanting to commit violent crimes. We need to make it riskier."
On Monday, Timms spoke in Parliament to call on the government to act quickly to curb acid attacks. He believes that it should be an offence to carry acid in the same way that it is already an offence to carry a knife, and says that purchasing sulphuric acid – commonly used in drain cleaner – should require a licence.
According to Home Office minister Sarah Newton, the government is looking into both of these suggestions as part of the wide-ranging review announced by Home Secretary Amber Rudd last week. But – and this is the crucial part – Newton had no guarantee on when the review would be concluded, or when its measures would be put in place.
That's not good enough, says criminologist Simon Harding.
"The wheels of government move very slowly," he tells me. Harding studies gang activity and is especially concerned by the rise in acid attacks in the country. "I'm not at this point seeing some fast and immediate results. I think that's what we need to see now."
There are a couple of steps that the authorities could take right now, he says, from training police officers to better recognise corrosive liquids during a routine stop and search, to making sure that court magistrates understand the severity of the crime and hand down more appropriate sentencing. (While acid attackers can face a life sentence in certain cases, victims like Samir have repeatedly stressed that the average sentencing time does not reflect the crime.)
But with Parliament breaking for summer recess yesterday, the issue – politically, at least – has been kicked into the long grass until it reconvenes in September. Newton says that's when the government will issue its next update on the progress of the review.
Is that fast enough? Not for the hundreds of moped delivery drivers who blockaded Parliament Square on Tuesday afternoon to call for a crackdown on the crime. And it's definitely not fast enough for any Londoners who are understandably concerned that daily life in the capital has become that extra bit more worrisome.
As Harding puts it: "No one wants to live in world where we have this kind of activity in society. It's not what we should be seeing in 21st century Britain."
More on VICE: