Following our blog published on 10th February, which featured the ‘Go Home Van Campaign’ as ‘evidence’ of the deepening and expansion of the immigration enforcement regime, we have now conducted an empirical study with migrant support organizations, refused asylum seekers and those without legal leave to remain, generating their views on the impact of this high-profile campaign. Although it has been almost a year since the vans have been taken back to the garage, preliminary findings show that their presence continues to reverberate in the lives of many migrants. While the official withdrawal of these infamous mobile objects could have publicly marked the end of the campaign, many migrants have continued to experience violence and stigmatization in other forms and in different settings. In addition to the increasing community level checks and harassment of people suspected of having an irregular status, the migrants we interviewed cited reporting centres as hidden sites where people are consistently bombarded with the language of ‘Go Home’. Individuals are also being routinely searched and harassed, and having mobile phones with cameras being confiscated in order to ensure that what happens in these securely guarded places does not leak to the outside world.
The vans have played a major role in specifying and articulating who counts as a potential subject for serious investigation, intervention or control. For those officially labelled as ‘immigration offenders’, a phrase reckoned by many of our participants to convey ‘criminal connotations’ and a ‘placeholder name for an excluded group’, images of the van continue to haunt their lives. One of the things we have been exploring in our study is the increased use of imagery in public campaigns. Of particular interest is the reason why the Home Office specifically chose to make the van the central tool of its campaign. A recurrent theme has been participants’ characterization of the van as an object with real social presence, pointing to the different features that characterized it, and speculating on what these could have been intended to achieve.
Those we spoke to described the Go Home vans of October 2013 not only as objects but as entities with ‘agency’ or real material presence. The choice of the van seems to have been a purposefully and well calculated technique, and for those migrants who have had negative experiences of dealing with the Home Office, the vans effectively represent a ‘real danger’ given the knowledge that behind it, ‘there is someone with the power to punish you’. For former detainees, the Go Home vans were readily distinguishable from ordinary vehicles because of their intimate association with the infamous Home Office night raids. Driving the vans round the ethnically-diverse areas of Barnet, Hounslow, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing, Brent and Redbridge in broad daylight, ‘decorated’ with the picture of handcuffs (casually rested on a white hand), suggested to those targeted that the ‘the state is coming to you and it’s a serious matter’. One refused asylum seeker described the Go Home van as ‘a non-verbal object with the power to single you out of the crowd’, further explaining that the mere ‘sight (even on television) of this object being driven around makes you feel like fleeing because you understand its sign language more than anyone else and you know it’s speaking to you directly’. For our research participants, the van epitomised non-linguistic ‘evidence’ of state violence.
Many of the participants felt that the boundaries of belonging in the UK have been clearly articulated in the slogan, ‘go home or face arrest’. This slogan not only seeks to separate migrants from citizens, but also precisely imposes arrest as the ultimate consequence of remaining in the UK without permission, further denoting the choicelessness of the ‘choices’ presented to unwanted migrants. As one participant put it, ‘by launching the go home van campaign, the Home Office has not only claimed to be representative of everyone; civil organizations and the entire public’ but most importantly, it has positioned itself as ‘a Home Office for everyone else but migrants’. The interviewed migrants increasingly expressed deep-seated feelings of ‘homelessness’, although most of them stated that they had roofs over their heads.
Meanwhile, all the 12 migrant support organizations we interviewed (including those who receive funding from the Home Office) disavowed their involvement in promoting the interests of or having their own interests represented by the Home Office. Instead, organisations routinely vowed their commitment to support and defend the unwanted migrants ‘they know’ at the grassroots level, despite the call from the top for all so-called ‘offenders’ to either ‘go home or face arrest’. Indeed there is a renewed call for collective responses to the rising anti-immigration tide as evidenced by the Migrant Rights Network’s Manifesto call to ‘end the hostile environment created by local immigration enforcement’, such as the Go Home van campaign.
This begs important questions. What was in the minds of the officials and experts who designed, approved and promoted the launch of this divisive campaign? Who were the advertising and marketing companies behind the campaign, and what ideas and images did they draw on in their ‘creative’ work? And what were the identities (and views) of the drivers behind the wheels of these infamous objects? These are questions for further exploration.
Finally, with regards to how policy is most likely to develop in the future, representatives of migrant support organizations were quite sceptical, as well as expressing anxiety and anticipating a yet more hostile environment for migrants as we head towards the general elections. As the manager of one organisation put it: ‘I find it quite difficult to predict but I guess the Home Office might be crafting something very visual and eye-catching and perhaps more devastating than the go home campaign’.
Vivien Lowndes is a Professor of Public Policy in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.