#Racistvan: “Go home or get arrested”

“Go home” is not a gentle reminder or suggestion to go home, it is simply saying that black and brown people don’t belong here and should “go back to where they came from”

It’s taken me a while to collect my thoughts on the van that has already become a hashtag on Twitter – #racistvan. It’s not taken me a while because I was trying to make up my mind about it but because I was appalled. I was appalled at how openly racist this government is and how little protest (in proportion) there is about it. The van in question is a new pilot by the government to scare illegal immigrants into handing themselves over to the authorities. “Go home or get arrested” is what’s written on the big billboards on these vans which are now being driven/paraded around six boroughs of London.

Defending the vans, Immigration minister Mark Harper said, “We are making it more difficult for people to live and work in the UK illegally…But there is an alternative to being led away in handcuffs. Help and advice can be provided to those who cooperate and return home voluntarily.” Now that it’s been three days since the vans were first introduced, Lib Dems have come out and said the posters on the vans weren’t agreed within the government. They’ve called this particular campaign many things – “disproportionate, distasteful, ineffective”. But they haven’t called it what it really is – racist.

Besides the aggressive tone of “Go home or get arrested”, the fact that the phrase “go home” has a history of racism and lived experiences associated with it can’t be ignored. “Go home” is not a gentle reminder or suggestion to go home (where is home, anyway?), it is simply saying that black and brown people don’t belong here and should “go back to where they came from”. It invokes memories of discrimination, abuse and marginalisation.

When I was once told by a white girl that I’m “not even supposed to be in this country”, I assumed that everybody would think that that’s an outrageous and racist thing to say. Now, with this government being openly racist itself, I’m not so sure. It almost feels like a downright denial of the history (and the continuance) of racism in Britain. And that’s scary because such denial validates what that white girl said to me even though she said it only because of my skin colour.

Some of us will remember the ‘racist tram woman’ and her slur of “get back to your own countries” or the pub landlord who told the TV cook Lorraine Pascale to “go home” (even the Daily Mail called the pub landlord ‘racist) or many other similar incidents. Many of us were, quite rightly, outraged about them. But how do you react when the government funds a campaign to do exactly the same? If Labour’s silence and Lib Dems’ mumbling is anything to go by, you call it ‘unpleasant’ at the most.

Of course, the usual what’s-wrong-with-driving-out-illegal-immigrants argument has been doing the rounds. But this campaign is only yet another in a series of measures to drive out existing immigrants and discourage new immigrants from coming to the country with the target of bringing down the number of migrants from hundreds of thousands to “tens of thousands”.

The discouragement appears to be not only for long-term immigrants, but, and this might sound absurd, for tourists as well, with the government hoping to introduce a requirement for a £3000 bond for tourists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Nigeria (‘high risk countries’, according to the Home Office).

There have also been proposals to make lives difficult for migrants in the UK. Landlords, health sevices and schools may be required to check immigration status of people before providing them their services. It might sound like something straight out of The Thick of It, but Sarah Teather MP revealed that a group called the ‘hostile environment working group’ was created on the explict direction of the PM to look into ways to deter unwanted migrants. The group was later renamed the inter-ministerial group on migrant’s access to benefits and public services.

As I wrote some time ago, such measures may be targeted to eliminate illegal immigrants, but they affect a lot more people than just illegal immigrants. They create an environment which mistrusts anybody who is non-white/speaks with an accent.

So, the vans campaign is not an isolated act, it’s one of many racist measures that this government has been openly talking about, it’s vile and shameful. We should protest against it and send out a strong message that racism is not acceptable, even if it comes from the government.