A nasty piece of gesture politics

The new 'Go home or face arrest' campaign highlights the state’s intolerance of all immigrants, illegal or not.

This week, the Home Office launched a pilot scheme aimed at encouraging illegal immigrants to turn themselves in for deportation before they are found and imprisoned. Vans with billboards mounted on them will be driving around a number of London boroughs throughout the week to advertise the message.

The billboards state in large letters: ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.’ The words are superimposed over the faceless image of a Home Office Enforcement Officer wielding handcuffs. The vans will be targeted at specific urban neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations and each van will be tailored to the districts they patrol. Every billboard will display information on the number of people arrested for immigration offences in the area in the previous week.

In true good cop/bad cop style, beneath the explicit threat of arrest, the small print at the base of the hoarding offers what are presumably meant to be comforting words. ‘We can help you return home voluntarily without fear of arrest or detention.’ One might think they were doing people a favour by deporting them. Leaflets and posters with similar messages will also be distributed throughout London.

Such a public campaign constitutes the overt intimidation of people who have come to this country in search of a better life.

It seems unlikely that the campaign will result in large numbers of people handing themselves in to the authorities. People who have come to UK to live and work without being documented have already had to overcome many challenges to enter the country and can face difficulties when dealing with employers and landlords. Yet they persevere because this is where they want to live. It is hard to imagine that a threatening billboard or leaflet is going to persuade anyone to return to a place that they must have had a good reason to leave. Many immigrants consider the UK their home, regardless of whether or not the state has designated them legal or illegal.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage was unhappy that the scheme did not go far enough in its harsh treatment of immigrants. Yet even the anti-immigration Farage disliked the tone of the billboards. Speaking on ITV’s Daybreak yesterday, he said: ‘I think the actual tone of the billboards, it really is Big Brother, nasty, it’s unpleasant. I don’t think using messaging like this makes any difference, what would make a difference is enforcing our borders properly.’ In an earlier Facebook post, Farage accused the government of ‘gesture politics’. On that aspect, he may have a point.

Although the government campaign will inevitably fail to scare people back to where they came from, it may still have negative effects. A public statement of this kind advertises state-sanctioned intolerance of a specific group of people in society and that is unacceptable. From there, it is only a short leap to outright telling people to inform on their neighbours, as has happened in Sweden in recent years. It is reckless of the Home Office to make a move whose only effect can be to foster tension and distrust where none existed before. 

The implication of such a heavy-handed government campaign is that illegal immigrants must be removed from this country because their presence is in some way damaging to society. Portraying undocumented immigrants as if they are criminals is an attitude that taints all immigrants, even those who have permission to stay. It insinuates that no immigrant can ever truly make the UK their home. Even if a person is documented, they are merely part of a group whose presence the state has decided to tolerate.

Immigration controls are no longer explicitly racist. However, the way people qualify for residency in the UK today is no less arbitrary than judging them by skin colour. The points system that people are subjected to is so baffling that being successful seems more dependant on being subject to the right set of geopolitical coincidences than anything else. Fleeing hardship caused by war or political oppression is considered worthy, albeit after a byzantine and protracted application process. Fleeing economic hardship is considered unworthy. Possessing one of a certain set of trades or skills can gain a person entry to the UK, but if your trade isn’t on the list, you’re illegal. So-called high-value migrants, those the Home Office defines as ‘investors, entrepreneurs and exceptionally talented people’, are considered deserving. If you’re unlucky enough not to be rich and/or a genius, then you are undeserving.  If the law is to treat people equally, then it cannot judge a person’s status in this country by their ability to meet criteria beyond their control.

As shocking as the ‘go home or face arrest’ campaign is, it marks an escalation rather than a new departure in the government’s deportation tactics. Such an overt and public anti-immigrant campaign only highlights what has long been state policy towards illegal immigrants. The interests of both immigrants and wider UK society would be better served by a more positive and less draconian attitude to those who want to live here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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