Government's 'racist' billboard vans mocked by right and left

Politicians and campaigners have united to attack a controversial mobile advertising campaign against migrants launched by the British government. They have accused the ruling administration of stirring up racial tension by using the "racist vans" around London, and mounting spot checks on people of colour at railway stations.

Commentators note that the campaign is in stark contrast to the government's failure to tackle "fat cat" business people friends of theirs whose firms that are household names rip off the economy by dodging paying tax.

Two vans, emblazoned with the slogan "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest", are being driven around six multiracial boroughs in the capital, at a cost of £10,000, in a pilot for a potential nationwide scheme. The advert claims that 106 people “in your area” were arrested last week. A hotline number is given to provide free advice.

Immigration is a hot political issue in the UK, where extreme right-wing parties, including the British National Party and UK Independence Party (UKIP) have exploited it to take votes away from the ruling Conservatives. But even UKIP's leader Nick Farage has denounced the advertising campaign and spot checks as "un-British" and the thin end of the wedge towards the government forcing everyone to carry identity cards. Bloggers and twitterati questioned the effectiveness of the campaign, accusing the government of simply pulling a publicity stunt which played into the hands of extreme right-wingers. 

@PukkaPunjabi, a female Asian Londoner, texted the hotline number advertised on the billboards. She said: "The text message I got back asked whether I wanted a telephone call from the Home Office in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi or English. The racial profiling was blatant, they were clearly profiling people from the Indian subcontinent and not white over-stayers, like the Australians or Americans. Anyone who has ever come through UK immigration and happens to have darker skin will know what I’m talking about."

@PukkaPunjabi added: "It is amazing that this sort of thing can still happen in the UK. I’m of Indian heritage although I was born in the UK. When my parents moved here in the 1960s, they faced terrible racism. There was a bar on ‘coloured people’ getting certain jobs and housing. “Paki-bashing” was rife. I experienced verbal abuse when I was younger in the street and remember vividly the “go home” slogan being graffitied on walls. And now it is the government doing it."

Civil liberties group Liberty hit back by sending a van around the capital attacking the Home Office for the "dog whistle" nature of the campaign. A spokesperson described them as “nasty, racist and likely unlawful”. In parallel, they are calling on people who have been stopped by police on the streets in a recent crackdown on immigration, to get in contact with a view to testing this government tactic in the courts.

Liberty policy director Isabella Sankey said: "No-one opposes fair immigration rules, but that doesn’t require polarising publicity stunts which fuel fear and intimidate vulnerable communities, poisoning delicate race relations."

She added: "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."

Many campaigners and Twitter users were outraged by the vans - particularly the use of the phrase "go home", which they say echoes the fascist National Front party slogans from the 1970s. Liberty believes the phrase may contravene the Equalities Act.

The Liberty van came emblazoned with the slogan: "Stirring up tension and division in the UK illegally? Home Office, think again. It circled the Home Office and Westminster this morning before heading to Kensal Green and Walthamstow, two of the boroughs targeted for the pilot scheme last month.

Critics of the Home Office vans have been very diverse, with even hardline figures on immigration like Farage raising concerns about the tone of the message.

The Liberty attack ad comes amid continued spot-checks of people's immigration status at tube stations by the UK Border Agency. Liberty has raised questions about the legal status of the spot-checks and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) is conducting an inquiry.

Immigration officers are allowed to enter into "consensual" conversations with potential immigration offenders but members of the public are under no obligation to answer their questions. Liberty and pressure group Migrants Rights are collecting details from people who have been stopped by UKBA officers with an eye to a potential legal challenge.

A member of the opposition Labour Party has referred the vans to the advertising authority, saying that the figure of “106 people arrested in your local area” was "grossly misleading". Even a local council where the vans circulated criticised the scheme.

* According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people coming to the UK has fallen by more than 80,000 in the last year. Official figures show net migration fell by a third. In the year to September 2012, 153,000 more people came to the UK than left - down from 242,000 the previous year.