Editor's note: This article is one in a two-part series on the UK's immigration problems.
LONDON, UK — “In the UK illegally?” the billboards read, over an image of handcuffs. “Go home or face arrest. 106 arrests last week in your area.”
For one week, vans carrying such signs drove around six London boroughs. They were part of a $15,000 pilot program from the Home Office — responsible for domestic security and immigration — to encourage illegal immigrants to self-deport.
A Home Office spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the campaign cost less that a single immigrant’s forcible removal. There were 15,000 such removals of migrants from Britain last year.
Not everyone was buying it. Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, called the campaign “stupid and offensive.”
Even Nigel Farange, the head of the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, said the tone was “nasty.”
Unite, Britain’s largest union, is currently seeking legal advice about whether the vans violate the law by inciting racial hatred.
This being England, however, it wasn’t long before people turned a dry British wit onto the Home Office.
“Good afternoon! I need to GO HOME this weekend. The route from Cardiff to Aberystwyth [two cities in Wales] is notoriously long. Any advice?” read one text to the listed number posted to Twitter under the hashtag #racistvan.
“Is this the Deportation number? There are some Germans living in the centre of London,” read another not-so-veiled reference to the royal family and their Germanic roots.
A British-born graphic designer who goes by the name of Pukkah Punjabi texted the number listed and asked the Home Office representative who called back to help her get home — to Willesden Green, a northwest London neighborhood.
For the child of immigrant parents, the campaign brought painful memories of just those words — “Go home” — shouted at her by strangers on the street in the 1970s.
Officials were unmoved. "We make no apology for enforcing our immigration laws and our officers carry out hundreds of operations like this every year around London,” the Home Office told the BBC. "Where we find people who are in the UK illegally, we will seek to remove them."
The Home Office is even considering expanding the program nationwide, with backing from Prime Minister David Cameron, whose spokesman said that the vans were working.
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The head of Refugee Action, a London charity that has a program to assist migrants and asylum-seekers who decide to return to their home countries voluntarily, questioned the government’s tack.
“We are horrified that the Home Office has opted for such a threatening approach to their voluntary return program,” said its chief Dave Garratt.
“Where is the evidence that creating such a hostile environment will increase the number of people who choose to return voluntarily?”