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One year on from the 'Go Home vans' flop: has the Home Office learned anything?

The UK government seems immune to criticism of its hostile approach to immigration, but the decision to return home for any migrant is not a simple one. Rather than obscuring evidence, the government must be transparent about what really constitutes a solution.

Last week the one year anniversary of the Home Office’s use of vans, deemed ‘misleading’ by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and offensive by many London communities, passed quietly by. You may recall that the advertising vans were a part of the wider ‘Operation Vaken’, a communications pilot developed by the UK Home Office. They wanted to test the hypothesis that people without leave to remain in the UK would leave the country voluntarily if they were threatened with arrest. 

'Go home van' / thedrum.com

The vans used as part of the pilot rightly caused a public outcry from all sides, and in response the Home Office ruefully agreed not to use such forms of advertisement again. Old news, then? Done and dusted? Well sadly, no.

It may state on the Home Office website that they don’t intend to use advertising vans in this way again. Yet the government’s approach to immigration continues to be actively hostile. And the intent not to learn from their experiences last summer is made clear by looking a little more closely at the official evaluation report of the scheme.

To mark what some have playfully dubbed the ‘Vanniversary’, at Refugee Action we produced a podcast revealing the anomalies in the way the ‘facts and stats’ related to the pilot are presented. You would hope to find an accurate, fair and balanced account of the project and its impacts, both positive and negative. Rather, we found a clear misuse of statistics and misrepresentation of facts to justify a hostile approach that so obviously failed on many counts.

For starters, the evaluation report makes it sound as though more people returned home as a result of the scheme than did. The Home Office evaluation states that 60 people left as a direct result of the scheme, and that 65 people were in process of leaving. It is not possible to directly attribute these people having left as a result of the scheme, as they may have chosen to leave anyway. It is likely the same or a higher number of people might have responded to less aggressive advertising used by Refugee Action’s Choices service.  

The service, which offers impartial, confidential advice to anyone who is considering returning to their home country from Britain, recognises that making the decision to return home is not a simple one. For many of the people we support it will be one of the most difficult and traumatic of their life. Which is why the Choices service gives people a safe and supportive environment to consider their future, whether that be here in the UK or in their home country.

We don’t know how many of those 65 ‘in process’ when the evaluation was released actually returned home in the end, but it is a complicated decision and process, so from our experience it’s likely that a high percentage did not.

Moreover, seven of those 60 people who attributed the campaign to their choice to return read about the campaign online or in the media rather than saw the vans or posters themselves. It is misleading to include these in the figures of overall people reached by the advertising, and they constitute 12 per cent of people who returned.

The report also suggests there was a consequential growth in voluntary departures from the areas that were covered when in fact there was not.

It states that there was a 42 per cent increase in voluntary returns from the areas of London where Operation Vaken took place. The rate that voluntary returns increased in the areas not covered by the scheme was 77 per cent, meaning there was far Iess growth in areas covered by scheme.

Prime Minister David Cameron is met by Theresa May on his first visit to the Home Office David Cameron is met by Theresa May on visit to the Home Office/ Home Office.

Financial sense?

Now onto claims that the scheme was a success financially. According to the Home Office, the pilot cost a total of £9,740.

Their website reads: “The average cost of a voluntary removal is £1,000 while the average cost of an enforced removal is up to £15,000 – so the 60 voluntary removals connected to the pilot represent a notional saving of approximately £830,000 compared to the costs of enforcing those removals.”

That works out as £152 per head in advertising to reach each person who saw a van and chose to return home. The Home Office chooses to weigh that cost against the cost of forced removal. However it should instead be compared with the cost per head spent by Refugee Action to advertise the Choices assisted voluntary return service, which is much lower.

As part of the ‘Go Home’ messaging, thousands of migrants of all types received text messages telling them they are no longer allowed to stay in the country. We spoke to Mr Danini from India at the time, who received one of these texts, a ‘threatening’ letter from contracted agency Capita businesses and a phone call after that. Mr Danini was accessing Refugee Action’s Choices services, and we were helping him take positive steps towards voluntary return and a difficult transition back to India. He spoke of the distress caused by the bombardment of ill-informed, scattergun approach, hostile communication.

“I’m really stressed. I’m scared they’ll come to my home. I need to speak to an immigration solicitor but I don’t have any money to find one. I’m worried about my son, he was born in London, he’s in year two at school and doing really well. I don’t know how he will cope with life back in India. I won’t have any money for schools, for a business, for hospital visits. How am I supposed to look after him?”

Through the Choices service, Refugee Action was able to put Mr Danini in touch with a one of our overseas partners in India to help him reintegrate back in his home country and set up a business on return.

‘Misleading’ messaging

Perhaps most striking in what was omitted is how the report failed to even mention the complaints against the scheme upheld by the ASA who found that the information in those adverts was misleading, never mind the social consequences within communities reported to them by civil society organisations and others.

We should not need to remind the government that it has a duty to protect people coming to the UK, particularly vulnerable people who have fled persecution and have been forced to leave their homes. Such considerations ought to be reflected in the evaluation of any scheme that is likely to impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Worryingly, the vans were just one small part of a wider hostile approach to immigration. Just last week, both David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May were criticised for posing for photos, smiling, in a home following a raid by border officials.

Through my work supporting refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants I see the destructive and divisive impact of this hostility every day on the individual and community level.

Since Operation Vaken our government has produced an Immigration Act attempting to get doctors and landlords to check people’s ID documents and they’ve reduced the availability of critical legal aid to various vulnerable migrants including asylum seekers and refugees.

The government must be realistic and not blind themselves to the damage done by the trialled and tested hostile methods of promoting voluntary departure. Rather than obscuring facts and stats, they need to be open and transparent about what really constitutes a success and learn real and valuable lessons from their mistakes. After all, isn’t that what pilot schemes are for?

Listen to the seven minute podcast programme for Jeremy’s full analysis on Refugee Action’s Audioboo stream.

About the author

Jeremy Bernhaut is a Policy Manager at Refugee Action, based in London. He leads on the charity’s policy, research and advocacy work for its ‘Choices’ service, which provides impartial advice and support for people considering returning home. Prior to this he worked for eight years with Refugee Action on the Gateway Protection Programme, resettling refugees in the UK through the UNHCR’s international scheme.


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