A Home Office scheme that saw vans driven through areas of London displaying large messages discouraging illegal immigration has divided opinion among the public. The posters in question depict a large image of a handcuff, accompanied by the text: ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’. Among other critics, Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite Union, has possibly voiced the most curious criticism, claiming that they are inciting ‘racial hatred’ among the communities in which they are displayed.

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Photo: Mirror.co.uk

It seems as though McClusky has confused racism, xenophobia and messages of hate with crime preventing measures. However, the intention of the message is clearly not to alienate, discriminate or insight racial hatred toward ethnic minorities. The poster is quite plainly a crime prevention method. A large banner that states: ‘currently dealing drugs? Stop doing so or face arrest’ is no different in its message or aim. They both seek to curb illegal activity using deterrence. The Home Office’s poster includes telephone numbers of non-emergency hot lines that encourage those residing illegally to come forward for deportation but would avoid prosecution in exchange for doing so. Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, praised the Home Office scheme, stating that people would be encouraged to return home if they had feared criminal charges before.

So can McClusky’s criticism be true in an indirect sense? If illegal immigrants are predominately non-white, is a sign condemning them racist? Not at all. Criminal activity and race are entirely separate and coincidental. Suggesting that they are related is complete nonsense. In fact, it’s racist. So even indirectly, it’s inappropriate to suggest that this anti crime message is inciting racial hatred. If it does, it is the ignorant few that will inevitably interpret something unrelated to race as an excuse to behave aggressively toward ethnic minorities. It is those people who should be condemned, not the messages they manage to mistakenly interpret and misconstrue.

Yet criticism has also come from business secretary Vince Cable, branding the posters ‘silly and offensive’. It’s difficult to see why Cable is criticising a message which is offensive only to people who are committing criminal offences. His criticism simply reflects a worrying ignorance. An ignorance where the status of ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘immigrant’ have become incorrectly synonymous.

To condemn the former is a positive anti-crime mentality. To condemn the latter is nothing other than xenophobia. It’s an attitude that should not be accepted nor promoted. The Home Office’s vans clearly ask its reader if they are ‘in the country illegally?’ Cable surely cannot have meant that we shouldn’t offend people who are breaking the law, so his objections also seem baffling.

The Home Office vans are nothing other than criminal deterrents. Is the message designed to put fear into a criminal’s mind? Yes. Will it offend people breaking the law? Yes. But what use is a polite anti-crime message? Maybe those who value a softer approach would rather a sign which read ‘We’d all be so terribly upset if you broke the law, would you mind awfully if you didn’t do that?’ It hasn’t quite got the same edge. When measures of criminal deterrence begin to worry about the criminals they might offend, they may as well not attempt to deter at all.