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Did Home Office ‘Go home’ vans backfire?

Jonathan Lindsell, 5 August 2013

A Home Office initiative to seize control of migration seems to have backfired after being panned from all sides, derided as an Australian import and undermined by the Liberal Democrats. The big push to eject illegal immigrants over the last week had three main elements:

i) Vans driving around high-proportion minority London boroughs with posters asking: “In the UK illegally? GO HOME OR FACE ARREST”, plus an image of handcuffs and local arrest statistics
ii) A rolling Twitter commentary of border agency/policy raids on suspected illegal migrants, replete with pictures of suspects being bundled into vans. 139 were detained.
iii) Border agency employees stopping commuters at train stations and asking for identification

Nigel Farage

It isn’t surprising that the left reacted negatively. Many identified the strategy as an initiative of Lynton Crosby, himself an Australian, who used similar tactics when working for then-Prime Minister John Howard. The Independent and The Guardian speculated that this was a Tory initiative to win over votes from UKIP, who are seen as tougher on immigration.

Twitter users  branded the vans ‘#racistvan’ and characterised the @ukhomeoffice’s reporting as the ‘UK Hunger Games’, after the popular young adult novel series in which unprivileged teenagers fight to the death. David Allen Green, the New Statesman’s legal correspondent, opined that by using Twitter to announce those arrested were ‘immigration offenders’ pre-trial, the Home Office might have blundered into legal contempt.

Meanwhile reports from London’s more diverse borough suggest the vans and border agency operations caused a great deal of disruption. One witness from North London told the Kilburn Times: “They appeared to be stopping and questioning every non-white person, many of whom were clearly ordinary Kensal Green residents going to work.”

The difficulties arise partly due to ‘unresolved’ cases of migration or asylum application, and from EU/EEA residents who have yet to meet the ‘habitual residents test’ (if out of work but attempting to claim benefits). There are roughly 300,000 such cases, meaning many of the migrants terrified by the vans or check might have legitimate claims to be in the country. Likewise, Theresa May is critical of various EU and ECHR rules on asylum, which may change soon.

Nick Clegg, on holiday when the crackdown began, voiced disappointment and argued that immigration policy should prioritise more rigorous border agency with ‘exit-check’ capability. This would help to track EU students who received UK tuition loans repay from their home countries.  Vince Cable went further, labelling the vans ‘stupid and offensive’.

None of the above criticisms are surprising, unlike the attacks coming in from the right. Nigel Farage condemned the vans as:  “Nasty, unpleasant, Big Brother … I don’t think messages like this will make any difference” and chimed with Clegg on a better-funded border agency. Meanwhile Daily Mail’s Peter Hitchens called the government’s approach ‘stupid…fraudulent…slippery and dishonest’. The prominent supporters have been Boris Johnson and immigration minister Mark Harper, both of whom argue it isn’t racist to ask criminals to leave.

The crowning irony is that, despite negative press, a YouGov/Sun poll shows support for the vans among UKIP and Conservative voters. This indicates that, for all the vitriol he’s received recently, Crosby is achieving his goals. Farage, meanwhile, might not be wielding quite the charismatic pulling-power expected of him.

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