Farewell racist van

So farewell then, racist van. You had your week of spreading fear, loathing and community tension in six London boroughs on behalf of the Home Office, with your message that migrants here illegally should go home or face arrest. Your peculiarly crass evocation of a long British tradition of racist abuse (“blacks / Irish / illegals go home”) gave us the unusual experience of migrants and their allies apparently winning the public debate against the prevailing xenophobia.

You are unlikely to be back, in quite this form. Raymond Murray and another client of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London have forced the Home Office into a humiliating promise not to do it again without consulting local communities. Who will presumably advise that racially inflammatory propaganda is not welcome in their areas, to judge by this week’s pre-emptive warning by six Yorkshire council leaders. Cuddlier versions of Home Office’s accompanying posters have already been spotted, with cute clouds and planes, and no mention of illegals facing arrest.

However, the underlying Home Office strategy of the “hostile environment” will not be so readily driven off. Sarah Teather has revealed the existence of the government’s charmingly named “hostile environment working group”, generating policies that aim to make unauthorised migrants’ lives so miserable that they will disappear from the country. The idea of a hostile environment is clearly behind the raft of current government migration proposals, from denying access to healthcare to forcing landlords to act as immigration officers, via preventing migrants from accessing legal aid or defending their rights to a family life.

But what would such a hostile environment look like? A “hostile environment” evokes a war zone. As the metaphor suggests, it wouldn’t just be difficult and unpleasant for the intended targets, as any genuine Brit without a passport or ID card in their back pocket is likely to discover in trying to access an NHS rigorously protected from ‘abuse’ by sick migrants.

Behind the threats and bluster, the racist van was promoting assisted return: encouraging migrants to cooperate with returning without enforcement and detention, often with reintegration support. This in itself need not be problematic. Such return is hardly voluntary, given the limited options facing irregular migrants, but it can be better than detention and enforcement.

There are two problems here, however. First, the UK’s hard-line approach to asylum means that many of the unauthorised migrants are asylum-seekers fleeing genuine warzones. It is naïve to think that turning the UK into a metaphorical warzone will impress people with direct experience of the real thing.

Secondly, assisted return relies on migrants cooperating with immigration authorities. In all human contexts, cooperation tends to be based on trust and dialogue rather than threats and intimidation. Irregular migrants have often survived tough experiences in their countries of origin, and are not easily bullied.

Detention centres, for example, the most hostile of UK hostile environments, have proved singularly ineffective in compelling compliance. Despite the UK’s use of indefinite detention, which frequently amounts to years spent in a high-security detention centre, migrants continue to fight their cases to stay. The government’s own statistics show that so far this year two thirds of migrants detained for over a year were released, not deported.

By contrast, states that have developed successful assisted return programmes have started by improving the quality of their immigration decision-making and dialogue with migrants themselves. Countries like Sweden have demonstrated that immigration decision-making that is perceived to be fair and transparent by migrants can lead to assisted return rates of up to 82%.

Even on its own terms, the thinking behind the hostile environment strategy is hopelessly confused. Migrants do not comply with the immigration system because they do not trust it. Rather than try to mend the system and regain that trust, the Home Office is ratcheting up the aggression that was the cause of the breakdown of trust in the first place.

Does the Home Office really believe that threats will increase assisted return rates? Or is the real audience the xenophobic public that wants to feel that something is being done?

If the Home Office wishes to wage war on unauthorised migrants then, as with all wars, it must ask whether this one is winnable. Stunts like the racist van can only harden the perception of both migrants and migrant communities that immigration policy is unjust and driven by the populism of the media and right-wing fringe. It seems to have strengthened the resolve of diverse communities to oppose aggressive Home Office intrusion: witness the increased outrage over the latest immigration raids on train stations.

The Home Office needs to stand down its snipers and start negotiating. Only by communicating with migrants and local communities can it start to rebuild the trust that it has spent years dismantling.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post.