Labor representatives and civil rights activists are up in arms over a United Kingdom Border Agency plan that has sent text messages to tens of thousands of suspected illegal immigrants, and others in error, warning them to leave the country.
The program, first revealed this week in the Guardian, has been undertaken by the contractor Capita and has already reached approximately 40,000 people. But the Labor Party has called the Home Office “shambolic and incompetent” after a number of people received the messages by mistake - including immigration lawyer Bobby Chan and civil rights activist Suresh Grover.
The message reads, “Message from the UK Border Agency: You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have the right to remain.” Another version states: “Our records show you may not have leave to remain in the UK. Please contact us to discuss your case.”
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said the PM “agrees with the principle” of sending such messages and acknowledged that the wording of the message has changed since the first texts were sent.
The campaign is ongoing and has cost the UK £40 million ($64 million). Hundreds of complaints have come in, partly because of messages that included smiley faces and wished immigrants a “pleasant journey.”
“It is one of various means the Home Office contacts people who may not have the right to remain in the UK,” the spokesman said. The Home Office declared it has a “right to enforce the rules.”
Yet Suresh Grover, founder of the Southall Monitoring Group which helps immigrants and their families, questioned why he was contacted at all.
“I was absolutely shocked and quite horrified to receive the text,” he told The Independent. “I thought it wasn’t meant for me. I came here with my parents in 1966, I was born in East Africa and have always had a British passport.”
He went on to describe calling the phone number included in the text and speaking to a Capita representative who pressed him to provide more information even after he said he has lived in the UK for 50 years.
“The more I talked to the woman the more angry I got,” Grover added. “She was asking for more personal information about me and was not telling me where she got my number. I’m not going to be giving them information I don’t think they deserve. I think it’s outrageous sending people random texts without knowing who they are sending them to.”
“I was angry but I was also bemused, because of the work I do,” he said. “But I think people who don’t work in this area may take them seriously and be worried they don’t have the right to live in the UK. It’s horrific.”
The Home Office has denied Grover was contacted at all and defended its position by saying: “We are taking proactive steps to contact individuals who records show have no valid right to be in the UK.” The department also said it contacted people via email but refused to comment on accusations that the method is contributing to an “atmosphere of fear,” as Bobby Chan has alleged.
“I came here in 1973 so I was very surprised to receive this message and even found it quite funny,” Chan told The Independent. “But if an elderly Chinese person received one of these messages they would get very worried. Capita told me I received the message because I put in an application to the Home Office but it must have been 30 years since I last put one in and I didn’t have a mobile then…These kinds of practices stereotype immigrants as a criminal community and create an atmosphere of fear.”