Fewer than half of acid attack victims pursue criminal charges against their attackers, researchers have found. The study, also revealed that, contrary to the common perception of acid attacks, the majority of victims were white men.
Researchers from the St. Andrews Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns, one of the UK’s leading burns units, examined data from 21 cases involving victims of acid attacks dating back over the last fifteen years, publishing the results in the journal Scars, Burns & Healing. They found that only nine of these cases (43 percent) were criminally investigated, while the remainder had no police involvement.
They also found that victims were mostly young men assaulted by male perpetrators, making the UK something of an anomaly – globally, 80 percent of victims of acid attacks are women. Only a third of the victims knew their attackers.
Although the researchers don’t believe any new legislation is warranted, noting that “sentencing powers reflect the severity of the crime,” they have argued in favour of more training for medical staff to support victims and encourage them to approach the police for help.
“As the first point of contact in a protected environment such as in hospital, this may be the only opportunity to provide these patients with a setting in which they may feel ‘safe’ enough to accept help,” the authors said.
Professor Shokrollahi, Consultant Burns & Plastic Surgeon and Editor-in-Chief of Scars, Burns & Healing further commented:
“This is a very important paper as there has been very little data and information regarding these types of assaults in the United Kingdom.
“Whilst there is no evidence of an epidemic, and of the 250,000 burns per annum in the UK these injuries account for less than 1 percent, it is still an alarming problem that we need to address – 21 cases in one burns service is 21 too many.
“There is a clear need to limit access to corrosive substances in a strategic way, but work needs to be done to ensure limiting access to one substance does not simply result in a shift to a different, more accessible substance.”
The research was supported by the Katie Piper Foundation, launched by the former TV presenter and model who was left severely facially disfigured by a sulphuric acid attack planned by her ex-boyfriend.
The findings are broadly in line with data obtained by the Guardian in September. That data, from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), showed that sixty percent of victims were male, and 71 percent were white British.
Jaf Shah, the executive director of the support group Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), said: “Looking at the data in general, there is a fairly large probability that a high percentage of the incidents are male on male attacks and most likely to be gang related. The numbers appear to be very high and suggest an increase, which is very concerning.”
One male former gang member corroborated that picture, saying: “Young gang members are more ruthless than they used to be. It’s now become part of the natural thought process to use acid; it’s on the roster.”
However, where the St Andrew’s study suggested that the frequency of incidence was stable, the HSCIC figures, which are based on more cases, showed a sharp increase in the number of incidents in recent years.
Their figures, which drew on acid attack cases from across the UK, showed that the number of attacks more than doubled in just four years, from 44 in 2006/7 to 110 in 2010/11.
It is believed that the true figures may have been higher still, as many victims do not come forward to the police, and many hospital units do not record the cause of burn injuries.