With retrospect, those at British Home Office, responsible for a mobile advertising campaign encouraging illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest,” may regret their chosen approach. Such was the ensuing outpour of opinion following the pilot campaign that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has launched an investigation. Billboard-clad vans, driven around six London boroughs, had drawn a significant number of complaints.

That noted, there might, by contrast, be a case for arguing that the ploy has achieved the government’s main aims: returning the immigration debate to the fore and showing an intent at tackling the thorny issue. In any case, the events reflect the reality that wariness towards arrivals on British shores is still widespread.

The pilot ran during the final week of July, but the inquiries into its successes and failures look set to continue. The immigration debate is as divisive – and as perennial – as any in Britain, with the complaints to the ASA against the campaign ostensibly leveled out by recent YouGov polls suggesting that support for it is growing.

That the British Government has something of a predicament – if not a problem – with immigration is largely irrefutable. One of the lasting legacies of Tony Blair’s Labour government is his absolute restructuring of migration policy, which resulted in huge numbers of migrants arriving at the British border. And a subsequent sense of paranoia over new arrivals has clearly not gone away. The country’s history with immigration is protracted. From Enoch Powel’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968, in which the Member of Parliament bemoaned immigration from the Commonwealth, to the National Front protests of the 1970s, Britain’s post-Empire generations have been decidedly suspicious of newcomers. And it is to these historic instances that complainants of the van campaign have pointed, claiming that the “go home” message is reminiscent of days gone by.

The campaign, whether it proves to be successful or not (a Home Office report is now due), by its very nature runs the risk of having the knock-on effect of victimizing immigrants of all dispositions.

True, the scheme was piloted only for a week, and in only six London boroughs – and the Home Office was quick to note this to Record. Recent events, though, including a flourish of anti-Islamic protests among right-wing groups, have shown that unrest exists among sections of the British public, and it is not directed simply towards illegal immigration – but towards non-White Britons more generally.

And so, recent polls conducted by YouGov suggesting that support for the scheme is growing simplifies what is a distinctly complicated picture.

The van advertisements

In the eyes of the Home Office, the pilot was a simple exercise in giving illegal immigrants the opportunity to leave without consequence. According to the Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, “This pilot is about targeting those individuals who have no right to be in the country. These are people who are here illegally and we are giving them the opportunity and assistance to leave the country voluntarily.”

“We are working very closely with a lot of community groups who welcome the opportunity for someone who’s not here legally to leave the country in a dignified way, rather than being arrested, detained and removed,” he told Record.

Taking issue with this tact have been groups such as human rights campaigners, Liberty, whose counter-attack to the ad vans was a version of their own. “The truth is that successive Ministers, in fraught attempts to look tough and compete with UKIP [a political party who have achieved some support from right-wing voters], have preferred headline-grabbing gimmicks and endless reams of new legislation to the rather dull task of tackling delays and inefficiency,” the organization explained in a press release.

The definition of immigration

Even for a pilot scheme, the rhetoric implied in the advert is potentially harmful, and perhaps demonstrates a governmental mishandling of the immigration issue. The campaign has not simply caused offense, drawing complaints from the public and human rights groups alike, who have taken issue with the historic fascist resonance of the advert. More worryingly, it may also have overlooked the fact that, in Britain, the very vocabulary of immigration is somewhat cloudy, and often misleading. The clipped phrasing of the advert – “Are you in the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” – reduces what is undoubtedly a sensitive issue to a simple scenario: leave, or face the consequences.

Last week, the Oxford Migration Observatory published Migration in the News, a report providing analysis of the portrayal of immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers in the British Press. As Rob McNeil, the center’s senior analyst, is keen to point out, “The report does not seek simply to suggest a negative representation of immigrants in the press.”

The report’s quantitative analysis of press coverage, though, does point to the fact that British newspapers – some more than others – have played a large part in creating a picture of immigration that goes hand-in-hand with ideas of illegality, unemployment and alarming numbers of arrivals. The report in its own terms warns against jumping to conclusions, but suggests that a distinct vocabulary pertaining to the immigration issue must have repercussions. The Migration Observatory, based at the University of Oxford, has for a time now focused on the way in which public opinion on immigration is developed, and last week’s report comes two years after the publication of another report, Thinking Behind the Numbers. The findings of this earlier report are telling, for they reveal that public perception of Britain’s immigrant population is to a certain extent misunderstood.

“When thinking about immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers (62 percent) and least likely to think of students (29 percent). By current official (ONS) statistics, students represent the largest group of immigrants coming to the UK (37 percent of 2009 immigrant arrivals) while asylum seekers are the smallest group (4 percent in 2009),” the report suggests. This misunderstanding, combined with the figures showing that a large majority of Brits support reduced immigration (numbers that still hold value in 2013), suggest that would-be immigrants face a difficult time upon arrival.

There is, of course, a naturally occurring pattern in the data: people feel more strongly about stopping the entry or the long-term stay of those who are least likely to contribute or are most likely to put a strain on national services. So too are people likely to be less welcoming to those who fail to integrate. Put simply, those who are able to blend into Britain’s social fabric are more likely to be eased into the fold.

But such has been the representation of the immigrant issue in recent years that even those whose stay in the UK is premised on, say, security rather than settlement are often bundled under the undistinguishing umbrella term.

Staying, going, or something in between

Part of the problem, then, is that it is some of those who are in most desperate need of shelter that would be on the receiving end of the Home Office’s campaign. And while it is not the call for curbed immigration that has people up in arms, with even Liberty suggesting that “proportionately enforced” immigration control is fine, it is the possibility of undignified deportation that has struck a nerve. Not least because within the section of so-termed “illegal immigrants” are a large number of people who are in the country due to unenviable circumstances.

Centers such as the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum (NNRF), hidden away in a backstreet not far from the city center, are settings in which these precarious lives are carefully handled daily. Offering legal and practical advice, the center runs well-attended drop-in sessions, whose volume of attendees illuminate the scale of Britain’s work with overseas arrivals. But, for such a clearly valuable service, the profile is markedly low, the premises are concealed, only made noticeable by a ramshackle sign, and inside the set-up is makeshift. It would perhaps be unfair to suggest that the center’s work goes unnoticed; rather, its laborious, bureaucratic work happens largely away from the public eye. And often without their plight fully represented in the press – media attention can tend towards the threat the influx of large numbers might signify, as the Oxford report suggests – asylum-seeking individuals consequently remain somewhat vilified en masse.

Targeting this group is not a new phenomena. Britain has in recent times been a welcome destination for the destitute and the vulnerable. But not all illegal immigrants can be said to fit into this category, and there is no question that some have made the most of government handouts. For example, “Somali asylum seeker family given £2m house… after complaining 5-bed London home was ‘in poor area,’” read a headline in the Daily Mail newspaper in 2010. The trouble has been that these types of articles are the ones that have stuck in the collective consciousness of Britain’s anti-immigration contingent.

Equally, some might point to the fact that in reality the would-be advertising campaign is merely an attempt for illegal immigrants to turn themselves in because the government has been unable to deal with the incoming flow properly.

Addressing an audience at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) last week, shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant was in no doubt about the government’s failings, “In short, the government’s immigration policy adds up to cheap and nasty gimmicks rather than serious proposals or practical measures to tackle illegal entry.”

Bryant made reference to the Government’s well-publicized administrative failings, including reductions, and then hasty reintroductions, of border controls, and a failure to follow up leads on illegal immigration. And it is something of a worry that his criticism of the ruling coalition is, by all accounts, more than just simple politicking.

Victor, for example, who requested anonymity for reasons of privacy, has been living illegally in Britain for the best part of five years, his Ukranian passport having expired. Chancing his arm, he has stayed on, taking up itinerant work where possible, and waiting expectantly for the authorities to track him down. But that day has not come. Even two appearances in court for a traffic offense did not alert anyone to Victor’s extended stay.

“I am ready to go home, though,” he notes candidly, explaining that if he had suitable funds he would return without hesitation. “Whenever they catch up with me I’ll go,” he emphasizes. Victor, then, is precisely the type of target the Home Office likely have in mind for their campaign; but, one imagines, such an approach will not work on him.

Indeed, only days after a first meeting, Victor is said to have taken up employment again – long days, and no promise of long-term security, but employment all the same.

There is little doubt as to the sensitivity of the immigration debate; after all, at its heart are the livelihoods of people. But that sensitivity would seem to be overlooked when it is simplified numbers and policies that have come to characterize the debate.

Victor seems sincere when he says he is happy to return home, but appears unlikely to hastily jump aboard the proverbial bandwagon out of Britain. He, like many others, is perhaps more likely to go if that wagon, stripped of its crude sloganeering, caught up with him in the flesh and treated him as a human, not as a number.