LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British human rights group is using an alternative message on immigration to hit back at a controversial pilot scheme tested by the government to encourage illegal immigrants to "go home".
Last month, the Home Office (interior ministry), which is responsible for immigration, sent out vans carrying billboards bearing the slogan: "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest," and a phone number to call for "free advice and help with travel documents."
The vans were driven around several London districts, in a campaign that included spot checks and live Twitter updates of suspected illegal immigrants being arrested, and which was dubbed #RacistVan by critics, who say it echoes the slogans of the racist, far-right National Front Party of the 1970s.
This week, the rights group Liberty sent its own van through the streets of the capital with the message: "Stirring up tension and division in the UK illegally? Home Office, think again."
"No one opposes fair immigration rules, proportionately enforced. But that doesn't require polarising publicity stunts which fuel fear and intimidate vulnerable communities; poisoning delicate race relations," Isabella Sankey, Liberty's director of policy, said in a statement.
Liberty also said the Home Office van messages were "deeply offensive", "divisive" and in breach of the 2010 Equality Act.
The Conservative Party, the senior partner in the coalition government, has toughened its stance on immigration in response to pressure from the right-wing UK Independence Party, whose popularity has been rising.
Activists worry about the impact the government's renewed focus on immigration will have on refugees and asylum seekers.
One group, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London, told the Home Office it would apply for a judicial review – an inquiry into the legality of the decision to send out the vans - unless the campaign was stopped by Aug 8, the BBC reported.
The campaign has also exposed divisions between the coalition partners, Prime Minister David Cameron's centre-right Conservatives and the left-leaning Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems).
Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable has denounced the campaign as "stupid" and "offensive". "It is designed apparently to create a sense of fear in the British population, that we have a vast problem with illegal immigration," Cable said last month.
“It's actually quite difficult being an illegal immigrant in Britain. You can't work, certainly legally, you can't have access to benefits, so the idea there's some vast hidden army of people is almost certainly completely wrong."
Conservative Immigration Minister Mark Harper defended the scheme, saying it was "not racist to ask people who are here illegally to leave Britain. It is merely telling them to comply with the law."