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How did east London become a hotspot for acid attacks?

We look at how an area of the city has become the country's acid capital

On Thursday night, five people were squirted with acid in 72 minutes by men riding on mopeds through Hackney and Shoreditch. Not much is known yet about the victims, other than that some of them are being treated for serious injuries. Videos are circulating of a man having water poured over him by police, and a boy aged just 16 is being held by police in connection with the attack.

In the last couple of years, east London boroughs like Hackney, Newham, Barking and Tower Hamlets have become the epicentre of a troubling new trend of acid attacks. They have risen by 30 per cent, with 431 attacks last year overall. The majority of them were in places in east London.

In the past couple of months acid was sprayed over a crowd in a club in Dalston, a couple were attacked in Mile End, a gang of youths sprayed teens before punching them in Wanstead, and a driver in Tower Hamlets was targeted before his car was stolen. Deprivation, unemployment and gang violence still plague eastern boroughs, but is there something else motivating this particular rise in crime?

On 21 June the country was shocked by a seemingly random attack on Jameel Muhktar and his cousin Resham Khan, who were celebrating her 21st birthday and were attacked while in their car. This week Khan penned an emotional letter detailing how she was “patiently waiting” for the return of her face. “Currently, I have two main priorities: to make a full recovery and to make sure no one ever goes through the living nightmare I have endured,” she wrote.

Her alleged attacker, John Tomlin, remained free for weeks before handing himself in. He has been charged with a hate crime despite calls from the likes of Diane Abbott to call it what it really is: terrorism against the brown community. Since the recent terror attacks there has been a marked rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

“The crackdown on knives has actually contributed. Acid is now the weapon of choice as it is easy to conceal and difficult for police to detect” – Newham People’s Alliance

Newham, a borough which has the second highest percentage of Muslims in Britain, is now the acid capital of London. In response to reports of acid attackers targeting Muslims at random in the borough, the Newham People’s Alliance, a group made up of majority Muslim faith lawyers, teachers and bankers from the area, organised a protest two weeks ago – citing a lack of action and interest from the authorities and national media. Many have spoken out on social media about not wanting to go outside for fear they may be attacked.

A spokesperson from the group paints a picture of a community paralysed by fear. Knife and gang crimes in the city continue to rise, while a recent terrorist attack at Finsbury Park mosque illustrated the rise in white extremism. Speaking to Dazed just hours before the mass attack that occurred on Thursday, they said prophetically: “It's not being taken very seriously at the moment, once things get out of control and we have a major catastrophe involving acid will it be taken seriously.” They questioned whether it was possible that authorities have been slow to tackle this crime due to it being seen as a race issue.

Worldwide, acid attacks tend to be a gendered (and racialised) crime. In South Asia and the Middle East, noxious substances have been thrown on women who refuse marriage proposals or sexual advances. In Uganda, the attacks have also been used in relationship conflicts. However, despite the obvious link to hate crimes, the reasons for increasing acid attacks in the UK aren't quite cut and dry.

Up until recently, investigations into this type of crime have suggested that white men under 40 were most likely to be victims of acid attacks, and an FOI request from January to July last year found that there were a higher number of BME attackers than white.

Claims that immigration from countries where acid attacks are more common have contributed towards the spike in crime do make some sense; although victims are far more likely to be BME regardless of the race of the perpetrator. When you take into consideration the BME population of London is 39 per cent and white people make up 60 per cent of London – the fact that 29 percent of acid victims are BME and just 30 per cent are white show that they are significantly overrepresented.

Organisations like the Newham Alliance also believe that anti-knife efforts on gangs are fuelling the craze. “The crackdown on knives has actually contributed,” they say. “Acid is now the weapon of choice as it is easy to conceal and difficult for police to detect.”

On a wider scale, many have begun questioning why it is so easy to purchase substances that have the power to change lives. A quick search shows you can buy sulphuric acid at 96 per cent strength for under £10 on the internet, and one petition demanding that acid is only sold to those with a licence to buy has gained over 377,000 signatures. MPs have since said that they will debate the issue.

What is clear is that it's going to take more than a government debate to tackle this problem. Acid attacks are a complicated, multi-layered issue intrinsically tied to London’s existing gang culture, poverty, immigration and now rising instances of hate crime. All eyes may be on the east but it isn’t just their issue, it's everyone's.