“Swamped” by anti-immigrant communications?

“Swamped” by anti-immigrant communications?

Hannah Jones, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Kirsten Forkert, Will Davies, Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Yasmin Gunaratnam, Emma Jackson and Roiyah Saltus, Action Against Xenophobia and Racism

In July 2013, the UK Home Office launched an advertising campaign with the slogan In the UK illegally? Go Home or face arrest,’ mounted on a billboard and driven around ethnically and nationally diverse areas of London. A few weeks later, the @ukhomeoffice Twitter account began to publish tweets about arrests at locations around London, with the hashtag #immigrationoffenders  and with some photographs of arrests, drawing attention to increasingly visible stop-and-check operations by immigration officers at tube stations and elsewhere in the capital. Later in August, further posters were displayed inside immigration reporting centres in Glasgow and Hounslow, where asylum seekers were faced with images of aeroplanes with the slogan ‘This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets’.

What are the effects of this kind of intervention? Home Office ministers insisted that the van campaign had been a pilot project, and that, in terms of their evaluation, it had been a success since it cost only £9,740 and appeared to have directly or indirectly encouraged 60 people to leave the country through voluntary repatriatio]. But what of the other costs, less easily accounted for financially?

Reactions to these interventions were notable, producing national newspaper headlines, local street protests, and a wave of online outrage, debate, and satire. After legal action by clients of Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), the Home Office conceded that it had not met its duties under the Equality Act 2010 in planning the advertising vans, and undertook to consult more broadly with those who may be affected before any similar activities in future. The Advertising Standards Authority received 224 complaints about the advertising van, and upheld the complaints that the number of arrests stated was misleading, though they disregarded complaints that the van was distressing and harmful.

It is worth noting that each of the examples given above are of government communications on migration; that is, not party political electioneering, but paid for through public taxation and carried out through the auspices of public employees. What this set of actions and more  seem to indicate is a shift towards an overtly hostile communications campaign by publicly funded institutions, which, in the words of the Commons Home Affairs Committee commenting on the failure to provide research on migration flows from Bulgaria and Romania, increased anti-immigrant prejudice.

But just as there appears to be a hardening of government tone on migration, and an engagement with new tools of communication to get this across through social media and viral advertising, the activists mobilising in opposition to these messages are also engaging in ways that bring together old and new forms of organising and protest that counter official narratives and policy.

Southall Black Sisters, for example, an organisation with a long and proud history of anti-racist and feminist organising, conducted a street protest at a series of Immigration Enforcement actions in Southall. They filmed the altercation on mobile phones and posted the footage on YouTube, from where it circulated on social media alerting others to the Home Office actions and to the possibilities of protest.

Others took the ‘Go Home’ posters at their word, and called the helpline number with requests for help getting back to neighbourhoods in London, pointing to the absurdity as well as the threat of the message. This form of protest grew through Twitter, reaching hundreds of thousands of people by engaging humour as well as anger. A different form of public engagement to the physical street interventions of Southall Black Sisters, this nonetheless was something to which the Home Office was forced to pay at least some attention – noting in their evaluation of ‘Operation Vaken’ (the van advertising) that 1034 of the calls to the helpline number – 66% of the total calls – were classified as ‘hoax’. A further 123 calls were ‘complaint’ and 161 ‘curiousity’ (rather than ‘genuine’). This means that at least 74%, and perhaps as many of 84%, of the calls to the helpline were, in effect, in protest.

Real-time social research

Alarmed by the events in summer 2013 and wary that expressing outrage in publications and on social media might do little other than amplify the ‘Go Home’ message, a group of academics and activists came together primarily through interactions on Twitter, and decided to put our social research skills to some use in the debate. We organised ourselves quickly, informally – and, looking back on it, rather impressively! – to conduct a series of street surveys that would gather the views of people living in the areas affected by the Go Home van and high profile spot checks, on those interventions and the immigration debate more broadly.

This was a direct challenge to a series of YouGov surveys commissioned by The Sun and which purported to find that there was broad support for these interventions, but which interviewed people from across the whole of the UK who may not have seen, heard of, or been affected by the interventions. The YouGov surveys framed their questions around Yes/No answers, or asking respondents to either agree or disagree with a statement about the campaign. Our hypothesis was that responses to this type of government advertising, and to wider issues of immigration and immigration control, might be more nuanced than a yes/no answer, and so within a few days we organised volunteers in London, Birmingham and Leeds to go out on the street with a questionnaire and gather public views.

What we found, from an admittedly small sample of 200, was that 74% of our respondents said the ‘Go home’ phrase was not acceptable, and 63% did not agree with the van campaign. 79% believed that it was wrong to carry out immigration checks on the basis of skin colour, while 75% thought the spot checks had an impact on community relations.

By giving respondents the chance to go beyond simple Yes/No answers and record more complex comments if they wished, we found something quite striking. For example, in response to the question ‘Do you think immigration should be reduced?’, respondents tended to say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ (28% said no; 30% were undecided; and 42% said yes). However, a large proportion of the people who said ‘yes’ went on to qualify that answer with additional comments indicating either that they thought immigration should be controlled, but that current policies were too harsh; or that they held more nuanced views about particular groups of migrants (refugees vs workers, or skilled vs unskilled migrants, for example). Breaking the ‘yes’ answers down further then, in our sample we had:

  • a ‘strongly yes’ group with comments like ‘yes, they take our jobs, NHS, housing, benefits’ (5% of the total sample);
  • a ‘simple yes’ group either without any additional comment, or comments like ‘there needs to be controls’ (23% of the total sample); and
  • a ‘yes, but’ group with comments like ‘yes, but not when reasons are genuine’ or ‘Once they are here, not send them back because this breaks families. They should not be allowed to come in the first place but once they are here should be allowed to stay’ (14% of the total sample).

Taking this into account makes it clear that views about immigration go beyond what can be captured by a choice between Yes and No; one interpretation of the results would be that 28% expressed themselves as definitely wanting to reduce immigration, 28% as definitely not wanting to reduce it, while 44% (‘undecided’ and ‘yes, but’) expressed more complex and nuanced views.

That quick turnaround was unlike the slow pace of much academic research, and while it was inspiring and exciting to work in that way it didn’t seem like it could be sustained long-term alongside all the other pressures on community organisations and academic workers. However, that flash research happened at the same time as a call for the Economic and Social Research Council’s pilot scheme for ‘urgent’ research. Alongside the survey work, a few of us were able to put together a detailed bid for a project to investigate these unfolding. We were successful and the resulting research project is now up and running.

Unlike much other research, the grant enables us to follow Home Office initiatives around immigration control (and in anticipation of the General Election) as they emerge. Most social research of this kind is limited necessarily to the analysis of events in the past. We have the luxury of following these events as they unfold before us – allowing a much fuller collection of contemporary commentary and a consideration of how public opinion and government campaigns interact, as each stage of our research informs the next, including engaging publics in an ongoing way, both face-to-face and online.

We understand that the formulation of policy around immigration may be experienced as a distant and unchangeable event for many migrants – and part of this project also seeks to register and map the odd gaps and connections between the world of policy-formation and the worlds where the impacts of policy are lived – but we also want to document the extensive manner in which those subject to the vagaries of immigration policy are political agents in their own right, participating and commenting or withdrawing and expressing cynicism in ways that echo the engagement of other political actors.

Public debates about migration continue – as do Home Office interventions. We will be attempting to map, analyse and engage in these debates as the project progresses. Watch this space.

Acknowledgements: The broader coalition of activists and academics who conducted the original street survey in the guise of AARX (Action Against Racism and Xenophobia) included Paolo Cardullo, Rita Chadha, Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg, Terese Jonsson, Elly Kilroy, Hannah Lewis, Jon Owen, Naaz Rashid, Ala Sirriyeh, Anne Marie Stewart, Walthamstow Migrants’ Action Group, and others, as well as the authors of this article.