24 Oct 2016, 21 mins ago

The controversial Home Office pilot scheme that saw two vans driving around Hounslow, Barking & Dagenham, Ealing, Barnet, Brent and Redbridge last week carting billboards stating “Go Home or Face Arrest” has come to an end, having sparked outrage across communities and among politicians. The advertising campaign cost £10,000 and was designed to tempt illegal immigrants to leave the UK without facing arrest and deportation.

The pilot scheme was described by the Home Office as aiming “to encourage illegal migrants to leave the UK voluntarily” by highlighting “the advantages of returning home voluntarily – while making it clear enforcement action will be taken if they do not”.

Along with the catchphrase “go home or face arrest” (plastered across a threatening image of a pair of handcuffs), the billboards also offered information on how many illegal migrants have recently been arrested in the local area and provided a hotline number that illegal migrants could call should they wish to avoid arrest and return home voluntarily.

Immigration Minister Mark Harper had said of the scheme:

“We are making it more difficult for people to live and work in the UK illegally. Every single day our enforcement officers are arresting, detaining and removing people with no right to be in the UK. But there is an alternative to being led away in handcuffs. Help and advice can be provided to those who cooperate and return home voluntarily. This pilot is just another part of the reforms of the immigration system that have cut out abuse and seen net migration drop to its lowest levels in nearly a decade. The Immigration Bill being introduced later this year will build on this work by restricting illegal migrants’ access to benefits and services.”

Voluntary returns are the most cost-effective way of removing illegal immigrants and save the taxpayer money. This pilot builds on the government’s current work on voluntary returns, which saw more than 28,000 voluntary departures last year. The areas were chosen because they have either significantly higher or below average numbers of voluntary returns, meaning that the success of the pilot can be assessed. Material has also been distributed in areas illegal migrants are known to frequent, including newsagents, money transfer shops and internet cafes. The pilot follows the launch of three consultations earlier this month which are looking to regulate illegal migrant access to public services and the right to live and work in the UK. Forming part of the new Immigration Bill, these proposals include regulating temporary migrants’ access to the NHS, requiring landlords to check the immigration status of tenants and tougher civil penalties for rogue employers that continue to exploit illegal immigrants.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign has sparked fury among the public and government officials. The Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable, was reported as calling the campaign “stupid”, “offensive” and designed to “create a sense of fear”. Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary described the scheme as “short-sighted and foolish”.

The public have turned to social media to communicate their anger in a more creative and amusing manner. Following the example of journalist Pukkah Punjabi who contacted the hotline seeking assistance to travel from Harrow to Willesden Green, the twitter campaign #RacistVan ensued, encouraging objectors to hijack the hotline with their requests for assistance in returning home – relating to lost keys, train timetables and travelling distances.

One campaigner sent the hotline the following message: “I need to GO HOME this weekend. The route from Cardiff to Aberystwyth is notoriously long. Could you help me with my travel documents? Shall I go via Carmarthen or the more scenic route through Brecon? And shall I stop for chips in Aberaeron? If so, Llond Plat or New Celtic?”

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