Reflections on the attack on a Syrian refugee in Huddersfield

Published: Fri, November 30th, 2018


In light of the attack on a Syrian refugee in Huddersfield, our Policy and Communications Officer Ben Andrew reflects on how Restorative Justice could be beneficial in cases like this.

The story of a teenage refugee being bullied in Huddersfield has gone viral over the past few days, after this video  showed him being pushed over by an older boy, and having water poured over his face.

This was a terrible incident, and our hearts go out to the victim, Jamal. While we can’t know for this for sure, the attack appears to be a hate incident, which makes it even more appalling. Hate crime is on the rise, and victims of hate crime are significantly less likely to be satisfied by police handling of the incident than victims of other crimes.

Why me? are working on a project which aims to increase the use of Restorative Justice for hate crime. Restorative Justice is where the victim of a crime meets up with the offender in a controlled environment, giving them a chance to have a dialogue about the incident, and how it affected the victim. For more details about Restorative Justice, read this handy guide.

While it is unclear whether Jamal would want to seek Restorative Justice, or whether his attacker would agree to it, there is evidence to suggest that Restorative Justice can be effective for cases like this. The incident, and the public’s response to it, have highlighted some of the failings of our approach to criminal justice, and why it needs to become more restorative.

The Victim

Our criminal justice system is not designed with the victim’s interests in mind. From the moment a crime is committed, the conflict becomes The State vs The Offender, with the victim sidelined.

Similarly in this case, the focus of public attention has been predominantly on punishing the perpetrator, with very little focus on Jamal’s needs. It is nice that so many people have donated to a fund to support his welfare, but that doesn’t empower Jamal to recover from this incident, or give him control over the criminal process.

Jamal should be empowered to have his voice heard. How did the attack make him feel? How is he feeling now? What does he want the offender to hear? What does he want to find out from them?

All of these questions would be addressed by giving Jamal the right to pursue Restorative Justice.

The Offender

There has been understandable public anger directed towards the boy who assaulted Jamal, but much of it has been counter-productive. Publishing this boy’s personal details on the internet is not helpful or appropriate, nor are the thousands of emails of abuse being sent to his school.

Not only are these responses wrong, they also don’t make the perpetrator face up to what he did in any meaningful way. Even if he is thrown out of school, convicted of a crime, and harassed continuously on the internet, none of that will make him question the hateful assumptions that made him commit this attack.

Hate crime is fuelled by ignorance and othering, and hearing how your actions affected another person is a good way to break down that othering. Restorative Justice would help this boy to see his victim as a human being, and not as an ‘other’ or a victim statement on a piece of paper.

The school setting

Restorative Justice is particularly relevant in this case because both the victim and the offender are minors. Restorative Justice with young offenders can be especially effective, and can help to reduce repeated offending rates. Children’s views are particularly malleable to outside pressures, so the attitudes which drive them to commit hate crimes are likely to be learned and picked up from their surroundings.

Questions also need to be asked about the school where this took place. It was telling that the other children in the video did not look surprised by this violence, and that nobody intervened or voiced displeasure at what was happening. While we do not know the full context, all of the children present in that incident will be affected living in an environment where that sort of behaviour is seen as acceptable.

Working restoratively in this environment could help to prevent violent acts from children against each other, and to break down barriers of ignorance and hate.

Conclusions

Jamal may or may not want to seek Restorative Justice following this attack, and we believe that that should be his personal choice to make.

But even if a formal meeting can’t be organised between a victim and offender, this incident shows that our criminal justice system needs a more restorative in mindset in order to support victims and encourage offenders to change.

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