The government spent almost £90,000 on three months of social media adverts aimed at deterring Channel crossings, but figures hit new records in the period.
Migrants from northern France and Belgium are being targeted by sponsored posts on Facebook and Instagram, which contain messages in multiple languages, including “you could die trying to get to the UK” and “don’t Trust smuggling gangs”.
Charities called the adverts ‘unnecessary and nonsensical’ after several expert groups rejected a call to help the Home Office ‘understand the perceptions of migrants’ for the campaign.
An Access to Information (FOI) request by The Independent shows that over £87,000 has been spent on the campaign so far and the “assumed total spend” is said to be £100,000. The figure could rise further if approved by ministers.
More than 20,000 migrants have arrived on small boats since its launch in June, and the total for 2022 has already surpassed previous years.
The ad campaign was announced after Priti Patel signed an agreement to send asylum seekers to Rwanda in April, when a government source told the Mail on Sunday the campaign would “let people know that the rules have changed and if you arrive in the UK illegally you can be deported to Rwanda”.
But the Home Office’s FOI response shows that none of the social media adverts mention the scheme, which is on hold amid several indecisive legal challenges.
If asylum seekers click the “read more” icon on the posts, they are redirected to a government website that mentions the Rwanda deal halfway through.
“From January 1, 2022, you will be considered for relocation to Rwanda if you are making an illegal trip to the UK and have traveled or have a connection to a safe country,” it says.
No one has yet been deported to Rwanda and the first attempted flight, which saw asylum seekers restrained and strapped to plane seats after self-harming and threatening to kill themselves, was stranded in following injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.
Other Home Office campaign messages focus on the new legal penalties for crossing the Channel in small boats, although the government has not confirmed whether anyone has ever been prosecuted under it. nationality and border law.
One social media advert says the ‘new measures’ are making it harder to stay in the UK, while another claims: ‘You could face up to four years in jail and deportation for coming to the UK illegally UK.”
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The linked government website lists ‘safe and legal ways to get to the UK’, but none of these apply to asylum seekers who have already reached Europe and have no immediate family in Britain.
Messages are sent from Home Office accounts on Facebook and Instagram, in Albanian, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashto and Vietnamese, and are branded with the UK Government’s branding.
A previous government influence campaign was criticized after The Independent revealed that he used what looked like a charity website claiming to “provide migrants in transit with free, reliable and important information”.
No analysis of the campaign’s effectiveness has been made public, and the “On The Move” website was taken down following the end of the Home Office’s contract with the Hong Kong company Seefar in December.
Research firm Britain Thinks was contracted for the current programme, alongside agencies Story UK and Manning Gottlieb.
In June, several charities revealed they had received an email asking for help with a campaign to “reach potential irregular migrants warning them of the risks and dangers of illegal migration – particularly via small boat crossings – and encouraging them to seek safe and legal migrants”. alternatives or seek asylum in the country where they find themselves”.
Several groups said they refused interviews with Britain Thinks about asylum seekers’ perceptions of the UK and knowledge of its laws.
Among them is Refugee Action, which has urged new Home Secretary Suella Braverman to “learn from her predecessor’s failures” and create alternatives to Channel crossings.
Managing Director Tim Naor Hilton added: ‘People are risking their lives to seek asylum in the UK for reasons we can all relate to – to be reunited with family or community, or because they speak English. .
“Half-baked, expensive social media ads will fail because they focus on keeping people out – ignoring the reality that people who want to be reunited with their families will do almost anything to get there. here.”
The Joint Migrant Welfare Council said the government had been told ‘repeatedly’ that it needed to reduce demand for Channel crossings by offering alternatives.
Spokeswoman Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah said he instead chose to “punish refugees who arrive and waste heaps of money on a needless and senseless fear campaign against refugees”.
He added: “We knew their scare propaganda campaign was cruel and would not work from the start, which is why we resisted this government’s request for our support.
Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, said the government was driving people into the hands of smugglers.
“The record number of small boat crossings is a direct result of the government’s own failures and no amount of state-funded public relations will fix it,” she added.
A Home Office spokesman said it remained “firmly committed to breaking the smugglers’ business model” and preventing further loss of life in the English Channel.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the global migration crisis and change will not happen overnight, which is why the government is working tirelessly to implement a range of innovative solutions,” a statement added. .
“Our targeted communications campaign aims to discourage migrants from leaving safe European countries and making life-threatening journeys to the UK. The campaign’s message is clear: don’t put your life in the hands of dangerous criminals.