Pinoy groups urge UK to scrap 'racist' immigration campaign

By Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Sep 19 2013 09:16 AM | Updated as of Sep 19 2013 07:11 PM

LONDON - Filipino migrant groups in Britain have condemned a UK government pilot scheme which aims to tackle illegal immigration by asking offenders to 'Go Home' through advertising billboards.

The pilot scheme by the Home Office has been causing controversy since its initial run at the end of July, when vans toured selected immigrant communities in England with billboards encouraging illegal migrants to "Go Home or Face Arrest".

Images and parodies of the 'Go Home' van have been circulating on the internet/Patrick Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Critics of the scheme, including politicians and human rights activists, claim that the campaign is potentially offensive, insensitive, and irresponsible.

Filipino alliance group Kanlungan echoed the sentiment by formally registering its "concern" over the campaign which it believes to be "racist," urging the UK government to scrap the scheme.

"On behalf of the Filipino community, we register our concern on this racist immigration enforcement by the UKBA. Criminalizing migrants and creating a hostile environment will not solve the immigration issue but will only create divisions, fear and racial tensions between communities," the group said in a statement.

It also called on the Filipino community to "unite with other migrant communities as well as the local population in demanding a stop to the current campaign of intimidation to the immigrant community by the UKBA through adverts and spot checks."

Speaking to ABS-CBN Europe, the newly formed Filipino Domestic Workers Association UK (FDWA) also condemned the billboards, claiming it has directly affected the lives of its members by inciting fear and consequently forcing illegal immigrants into hiding.

"Immigrants are now scared. I hear stories of people who hesitate to go out of their homes, not even to go to work, because they fear what the authorities might do to them with spot checks and all that," revealed Phoebe Dimacali, a founding member of FDWA.

She added: "Even illegal or undocumented migrants have rights. In fact, they are indirectly tax payers by spending money in this country with food, rent, and public transportation. They should legalize them instead of criminalizing them. Make them pay tax, so at least the country can benefit from it."

"Hurtful"

For Josephine, an undocumented Filipino migrant who wishes to conceal her real identity, this latest campaign is "hurtful" after living and working in her adopted country for over a decade.

"It's personally offensive. As part of the Philippine diaspora who settled here in the UK, it is very hurtful that they are just pushing me to leave despite my contributions to the economy," she told ABS-CBN Europe.

"We contribute to society by working and spending. The government only focuses on the bad part where we are supposed to be burdens to society, instead of allowing us to integrate into the community and actually help the UK move forward. This country was partly built on the contributions of migrants."

Josephine believes that the pilot scheme will be ineffective and will only force most undocumented migrants into hiding, particularly with its use of the racially sensitive phrase "Go Home," which have been known as a derogatory dismissal of immigrants in the past.

"The term 'Go Home' has a connotation, it has history. We have rights too," she said.

She also revealed her intention to stay in England because she is "not a criminal", saying she simply wanted to find better opportunities which were lacking in the Philippines. If it was entirely up to her, she will remain in the UK as long as she has a decent job and a good support network.

“I’m not a criminal. I have a job, a peaceful life, I mind my own business. And there are people supporting me too. Why would I ruin that with this scheme? I’ll just carry on.”

The London Borough of Hounslow was among the targeted areas of the pilot scheme/Patrick Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Racist or not?

The van billboards, which were seen in Hounslow, Brent, Ealing, Barking and Dagenham, areas with high concentrations of immigrants, are now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), after it received complaints from 60 members of the public who found it inappropriate.

In a statement published by the BBC, the watchdog said that the campaign is believed to be "reminiscent of slogans used by racist groups to attack immigrants in the past and could incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities."

However, a recent survey by poll website YouGov claims that the majority of Britons, 61%, disagree that the billboards are racist, suggesting more people support the campaign contrary to the initial outrage widely reported in the media.

ASA also reportedly said that since the controversy broke, it had been “flooded” by calls from members of the public who wish to formally back the scheme.

Politicians from the ruling Conservative Party also registered their support for the campaign. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “I don’t see anything offensive as suggesting to illegal immigrants that their stay in this country might be shorter than they thought.”

Dignified exit

A spokesperson from the Home Office told ABS-CBN Europe that the billboards are designed to help illegal immigrants with a dignified way to leave the UK, through a hotline in the advertisements which could provide information and assistance.

"Those with no right to remain in the UK should leave voluntarily. These posters are designed to ensure people know that we can provide sensitive advice and assistance to help them return home with dignity,” a statement from the Home Office said.

“We also continue to work closely with community groups who welcome the opportunity for someone who is not here legally to leave the country of their own accord.”

It also emphasized that the scheme is specifically targeted to those who are staying in the UK illegally, part of an ongoing wider government strategy to tackle immigration issues through crackdowns and tighter visa regulations.

There are approximately 500,000 irregular migrants in the UK - referring to those who do not have the right to remain in the country, including their offsprings who were born in Britain - based on rough estimates by the Home Office in 2005 and the London School of Economics in 2009. Exact figures are difficult to ascertain due to the hidden nature of this sector of the population.

The "Go Home" pilot scheme ends on October 4, 2013. The results of which will be analyzed by the Home Office who will then decide the next course of action.