Home Affairs CommitteeJoint written evidence submitted by Refugee Action, Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International UK, Asylum Aid, Women for Refugee Women and the Scottish Refugee Council (ASY 105)

We are writing to request an investigation by the Home Affairs Select Committee into recent public-facing activities on the part of the Home Office which we believe provoke negative and misleading representations of asylum seekers and migrants, and risk inciting racial hatred in our communities. Whether as an addendum to the existing inquiry into asylum or as a standalone investigation, we urge the Committee to examine this issue and its implications for the delivery of a robust and efficient asylum system.

There has been a series of activities that we believe are of interest to the Committee. The controversial advertising campaign delivered on the side of vans driven through selected London boroughs264 has generated displeasure at the use of public money for such an exercise, and has been condemned by members of the coalition Government265 and the Opposition.266 The ‘stop and search’ activity outside London tube stations raises concern about racial profiling and arbitrary immigration control.267 The @ukhomeoffice twitter feed currently provides a stream of blunt updates on the arrest of as yet untried ‘immigration offenders’ accompanied by provocative images, while Home Office press releases refer to ‘would-be illegal immigrants’—in fact, Syrian nationals who may have been attempting to seek safety in Europe.268 We believe that these actions risk creating an atmosphere of hostility and fear and, quite possibly, breach equalities legislation269 and advertising rules.

The message declared from the side of the poster vans seek to inform ‘illegal’ immigrants that they are committing a criminal act and that they will imminently be arrested if they do not go “home”. The same message seeks to convey to local non-migrant residents that there is a very real and criminal threat in their neighbourhoods. These communications are aggressive, hostile and dishonest and, as such, may constitute breach of the Advertising Code, in particular Section 01 Compliance and Section 04 Harm and Offence. Asylum seekers frequently arrive in the UK without documentation or find themselves in an irregular situation despite having a legitimate claim for asylum which they are too afraid to bring to the attention of the authorities. There are clear procedures for the treatment of asylum applications and it is indecent and untrue to suggest that arrest and deportation would be the immediate and automatic consequence of identification. Such a message is likely to deter asylum seekers from contacting the Home Office for the purpose of making a claim for asylum, and contravenes the spirit of the Refugee Convention and EU Qualification Directive 2011/95. It is apparent that this communication is designed to generate fear amongst migrants and members of the public with little consideration of the possible consequences for access to protection and public order and, as such, it is irresponsible and misguided. It also calls into question whether it is appropriate to have one government department responsible for both asylum decision making and immigration enforcement.

The use of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ in the context of the press release described above is offensive, inaccurate and misleading and fails to distinguish between the various individuals caught within its net, including asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and survivors of torture. This group often also includes children and young people for whom the Secretary of State has a positive duty to safeguard and promote their welfare. In a very positive step towards more accurate media coverage, the Associated Press removed the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its style guide last year on the basis that ‘illegal’ can refer only to an action, not to a person.270 By persisting in the use of this term, as well as similarly hostile terminology and images, the Home Office fails to uphold the prevailing standards in society—established under the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998—and ignores the risk of causing harm or serious or widespread offence. In fact, there is no evidence that an impact assessment was conducted prior to authorisation of the poster van initiative.

We would be very interested to know under what legal powers the Home Office considers it is acting when its enforcement officers stop members of the public to demand proof of identification and immigration status as they have done recently at tube stations in Walthamstow, Kensal Green, Stratford, and Cricklewood, as well as in the Manchester area. The Home Office’s own enforcement guidance clarifies that immigration enforcement street operations must be intelligence-led, and only target individuals who are known immigration offenders, where intelligence has shown they are gathered at specific locations at specific times.271 The guidance further states that the Home Office has made a commitment to Parliament not to carry out speculative immigration visits, which means that immigration officers should not stop and question people randomly in public places. An immigration officer is only allowed to examine someone for the purpose of determining immigration status if they have ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the individual is an immigration offender, and must never stop an individual based on their ‘race-linked features/appearance and/or race’. Any efforts to stop or examine individuals on the basis of racial profiling would constitute a breach of the Equality Act 2010. Even in joint operations led by, for example, the British Transport Police, the rules regarding ‘reasonable suspicion’ and non-discrimination still apply, alongside strict guidelines concerning referral from the lead agency to the immigration officer. In addition to creating a general atmosphere of fear, there is a real risk that such stop and search activities will deter refugees and asylum seekers from accessing vital services, including therapeutic support, because they are afraid they will be detained.

We appreciate that the Home Office bears a responsibility for delivering the Government’s immigration policy, but it is also bound by a positive duty under the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations. It has recently been exposed that this policy is operated with a view to creating a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants in the UK which raises concerns about compliance with this duty. We consider that recent high profile Home Office activities—designed to communicate a message to the public rather than deliver a policy objective—will have a negative impact on community cohesion and generate hostility towards asylum seekers and migrants. As the department responsible for policing, it is the Home Office that will have to deal with the consequences of increased tensions.

We are pleased that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is now examining the powers used to deliver the poster van and stop and search campaigns, to see if unlawful discrimination has taken place and the extent to which the Home Office has complied with its public sector equality duty. However, we believe that there is an urgent need for greater public scrutiny of the way in which the Home Office carries out its enforcement and communications activities and we call on the Home Affairs Select Committee to conduct its own examination of the issues and activities raised in this letter. The recent Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into asylum had within its remit, consideration of whether the media is balanced in its reporting of asylum issues. We believe that Home Office communications, whether through direct statements or through actions designed to deliver a message, must be relevant to treatment of this issue by the media.

Yours sincerely

Dave Garratt, Chief Executive, Refugee Action

Co-signatories:

Keith Best, Chief Executive, Freedom from Torture

Jan Shaw, Refugee Programme Director, Amnesty International UK

Wayne Myslik, Chief Executive, Asylum Aid

Kate Nustedt, Interim Director, Women for Refugee Women

Gary Christie, Head of Policy & Communications, Scottish Refugee Council

August 2013

Prepared 11th October 2013