I am an immigrant—I was born in Hong Kong to a Portuguese father and a Scottish mother. Although I came to this country in my teenage years—quite a long time ago, some might say—this is my home and where I choose to live and bring up my family. When the Home Office says, “Go home”, what is it saying to me? More important, what is saying to people who are seeking asylum? Many are fleeing from violence or to save their lives, and the reality is that many of them will not see family and friends again. Those are the tough choices that people face when they seek asylum.
Some of us are just about old enough to remember the 1970s and the hate-filled and toxic rhetoric of the National Front, telling the newly arrived visible minority immigrants to go home. I do not accept that the Home Office campaign is in any way a coincidence, which makes it all the more appalling. It is beyond belief that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition would borrow from such right-wing racist ideology.
For those who missed it, the campaign consisted of mobile billboards in London and a pilot poster campaign in the Glasgow and Hounslow reporting centres. The billboards asked:
There’s subtlety for you. How about the posters in Glasgow? One said:
“Is life here hard? Going home is simple”.
“This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets”.
Yet another said:
“Going home is as easy as 1, 2, 3”.
One Scottish Refugee Council client, a woman awaiting asylum, had this to say:
"The signs were everywhere in the Glasgow Reporting Centre—on the back of chairs, on the walls and on the steps. I had my three year old with me and he kept asking me what all the signs said, where the footprints on the floor led. There were huge pictures of homeless people. I didn't know what to say to him."
What can one say about such a crude, insensitive and utterly appalling campaign? Theresa May should be ashamed of herself. It was, I think, a personal error of judgment; she signed off the vans, the slogans and the funding and defended them for months until her recent U-turn.
It is fair to say that the billboards triggered not only a storm of protest across the United Kingdom but successful challenges to the Government. First, the courts determined that the Home Office had acted unlawfully by failing to have due regard to its public sector equality duty. Secondly, the Advertising Standards Authority determined that the figures quoted for arrests could not be substantiated and should be withdrawn. The ASA also concluded that the Home Office must not run the campaign again in its current form.
The campaign had the potential to damage community relations and incite hatred against minority communities. Of course, it is part of a wider and more worrying approach by the UK Government, which I believe nurtures a deep and persistent hostility towards migration, especially those who are seeking asylum. Although the Immigration Bill, which is currently before the UK Parliament, contains provisions that would command support across the chamber, it also contains others that are deeply concerning. For example, the clauses on residential tenancies place a duty on private sector landlords and housing associations to check and monitor the immigration status of prospective and existing tenants, with little practical support from the Home Office and the prospect of a £3,000 fine for failing to do so. It will undoubtedly lead to discrimination in such housing, and it is totally impractical to burden landlords with no experience of dealing with immigration matters in such a way.