It can take a long time to get local. I live in East London but I’m not sure who my mayor or councillors are, I haven’t a favourite corner pub/curry place/kebab shop and I still hear the East Enders theme song when I’m on the bus. Somehow it’s too easy to overlook the local in this vast, global city.
Leaving my office on The City’s borders, I’m heading east to a public meeting on the UK Home Office’s latest immigration enforcement actions: the so-called ‘Go Home’ Campaign. As usual, I get off at the wrong bus stop. I have to scuttle through the monster transit lounge that is Westfield Stratford City: a gargantuan supermall, built by its Australian owners during the lead up to the Olympics – the main Olympic grounds being just around the corner.
Disorientated by coils of chain stores, I finally make my way to the unconditioned air outside. I’m in Newham: one of the most ethnically diverse local authorities in the UK, and historically one of its most deprived. Newham is one of the target sites of the ‘Go Home’ campaign – so it’s fitting that the public meeting is held here. The Migrants’ Rights Network and their colleagues are here to talk to us about how we as migrants and migrant advocates can respond to the latest Home Office operations.
They start with the bizarre and short-lived journey of the ‘Go Home’ van (quickly dubbed ‘the racist van’ by online commentators). This Home Office initiative was widely reported in the mainstream media, sparked a brilliant text and Twitter campaign and even provoked an ‘anti-racist van’ in response (just Google racist van and you’ll see what I mean). It involved two vans driving through select London districts for a week in July with a billboard reading ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text GO HOME to 78070’ along with a number indicating ‘arrests last week in your area’. Oh, and a massive photo of handcuffs.
Critics of the ‘Go Home’ vans focused on their potential to generate or exacerbate community tensions. Far from strictly targeting irregular migrants, the vans sent provocative messages to some of the most diverse communities in the UK about the migrant ‘other’ within. They also, critics claimed, caused offence to residents from migrant backgrounds in those communities and beyond: ‘Go Home’, for instance, was a slogan of the National Front – a far right, white nationalist party of the 1970s.
A representative from the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn speaks next about the how they mounted a legal challenge against the ‘Go Home’ vans pilot. Acting on behalf of two clients of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London, they claimed that the initiative failed to comply with the public sector equality duty of the Equality Act. This Act requires public bodies to have ‘due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment and to foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not’. Having not carried out any prior consultations with local authorities and communities before sending out the vans, the Government had not demonstrated this ‘due regard’. The Home Office has since accepted that it must consult locally before deploying ‘Go Home’ vans in the future.
The next speakers, one from a migrant advocacy organisation in Newham and the other a human rights solicitor, speak about the recent wave of immigration spot checks. These UK Border Agency ‘stop and search’ operations are nothing new, but the speakers observe changes in the way they have been implemented. Particularly prominent (and many Londoners I know have witnessed this recently) have been the large groups of immigration enforcement officers doing random checks at busy train and bus stations. Sophie Naftalian from Bhatt Murphy solicitors also details the worrisome trend of immigration officers piggy-backing on transport ticket inspector and police operations.
Naftalian explains how according to their statutory authority immigration officers must have ‘reasonable suspicion’ in order to question someone. But recent operations indicate that people are being randomly stopped on the street and – according to eyewitness reports – on the grounds of their appearance, i.e. by racial profiling. Listening to these speakers, it occurs to me that the public presence of uniformed immigration officers – often in groups – in busy transport hubs aligns the spot checks with the ‘Go Home’ van: a muscle flexing and intimidating performance of Home Office strength on London streets.
While the practical legal aspects the ‘Go Home’ campaign – the van and spot checks – occupy the remainder of the meeting (these are well documented here) my mind centres around the Home Office’s evident lack of regard for local community cohesion. While from a migrants’ and citizens’ rights perspective, these actions are extremely troubling, my concern remains: how does a national government department so completely overlook local communities when generating immigration policy?
In previous posts, I’ve detailed how the UK Government has shirked its responsibility on integration policy. I say responsibility because in statutory terms, the central government shares responsibility for integration (rather messily) across portfolios: the Home Office is responsible for refugee integration and settlement and citizenship policy, the Department of Communities and Local Government oversees community cohesion (implemented via local authorities) and the Government Equality Office covers discrimination.
Taking the bus back home I feel depressed: a government that places its responsibility to protect the nation’s borders above its mandate to foster community cohesion and social inclusion has forgotten the local. The ‘Go Home’ campaign flies in the face of the efforts of local authorities to promote social harmony, ignores the reality that is Britain’s diversity, and completely misses the link between the spheres of immigration and integration policy. The point is that a government that neglects integration is not just shirking its responsibility towards migrants: it is actually showing disregard for local communities as a whole. And, while it’s easy for me to overlook the local in this vast, global city, the Home Office really has no excuse.