"Go home" vans: Nasty, racist and likely unlawful

Posted by Bella Sankey on 01 August 2013

Barely twelve months ago, the nation was embracing the Olympic Games and Team GB’s success. We cheered as British competitors including Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah, a Somali refugee, and Jessica Ennis, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, struck Gold; as proud of our diversity as we were of our sporting success. What a difference a year makes. As preparations are made to dismantle the Olympic Stadium’s floodlights and roof, the Home Office dispatches anti-immigrant vans to London’s multi-ethnic boroughs – warning those living illegally to “Go home or face arrest”.

Unsurprisingly, the scheme has been dubbed “racist van”. But instead of acknowledging the limitations of their experience and digesting the backlash, stubborn Conservatives have instead indulged in incredulous lecturing. Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, is indignant. “It is not racist to ask people who are here illegally to leave Britain. It is merely telling them to comply with the law,” he says. “By no stretch of the rational imagination can it be described as ‘racist’.”

How limited his imagination must be. Perhaps he should listen to those who’ve suffered the racism he dismissively discounts. “As a child in the 1970s with migrant parents I remember how ‘go home’ was shouted at us in the streets and graffitied on walls,” recalls Pukkah Punjabi. “One of my earliest memories is of the panic I felt when hearing my parents discussing in hushed tones whether we would indeed have to ‘go home’ as we watched the National Front march on TV”. When today’s Government barks “go home”, the phrase is not an abstract one. For Pukkah and many others, it’s rooted in the popular fascism of a darker period we hoped was behind us.

No-one opposes fair immigration rules, proportionately enforced. But that doesn’t require polarising publicity stunts which fuel fear and intimidate vulnerable communities; poisoning delicate race relations. For years, dog whistle press releases have spewed from the Home Office like summer wedding confetti; leaving this important area of public policy in disarray. The truth is that successive Ministers, in fraught attempts to look tough and compete with UKIP, have preferred headline-grabbing gimmicks and endless reams of new legislation to the rather dull task of tackling delays and inefficiency.

Increasingly desperate, Mr Harper insists: “No society that encourages people to break its laws can survive”. This both overstates the case and lays bare the strategy’s hypocrisy. For the Government is likely breaking the law itself here. The Equality Act obliges Ministers to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment and foster good relations when making decisions. Failing to do so renders the decision unlawful. Before this sorry episode, there was no impact assessment. No boroughs were consulted. Yet Ministers arrogantly maintain that the pilot will be a success if it leads to just one voluntary return. It’s hardly surprising that the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London has already lodged a legal challenge.

Thankfully, predictable efforts to divide – by denouncing those criticising the scheme as the “Left” or “pro-immigration lobby” – have failed. Bishop Patrick Lynch, Conservative council leader Keith Prince and Nigel Farage aren’t the most obvious lefty, pro-immigration lobbyists. The UKIP leader has dubbed the Government’s immigration strategy “nasty” and quite rightly pointed out “the danger is that the kind of message that is being sent from these billboards will be taken not just by illegal immigrants but also by many people of settled ethnic minorities as being some sort of sign of open warfare”. A pretty clear sign that the Government’s gone one naked electioneering stunt too far.

The public’s response, via text message and Twitpic, has been equally encouraging and amusing. We’ve had our own go above. That so many would prefer to live in a country which doesn’t stoop to scaremongering is reassuring. It seems that, when it comes to Olympic spirit and pride in diversity, the rest of us have memories a little longer than our political masters.