Two trucks, each displaying a huge poster with a number for migrants to text if they wish to return to their country of origin, were driven around six London boroughs for a week in a pilot scheme by the interior ministry.
Posters, leaflets and advertisements in local newspapers will run for a further month.
Business Secretary Vince Cable, a member of the Liberal Democrat party which is the junior partner in the coalition government with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, called the campaign “stupid and offensive”.
But Cameron’s spokesman defended the vans, saying it was “clear that this is already working” and that getting illegal immigrants to leave voluntarily was the most cost-effective solution.
The interior ministry had already received a “great deal of interest” as a result of the campaign, the spokesman added.
The government will decide whether or not to roll out the vans nationwide after the ministry has collected all the necessary information, he added.
Immigration is a key issue with less than two years until Britain’s next general election, as the centre-right Conservatives fear a growing threat from the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for migration curbs and an exit from the European Union.
But the “go home” campaign has revived tensions in the coalition government, with the office of Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg reportedly saying he had not been told about the van plan in advance.
The posters feature a huge picture of a pair of handcuffs together with a number said to represent the number of arrests in the local area and the words: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.”
It tells people to text the word “HOME” to the displayed number to get help.
The trucks were driven through several areas of London with large ethnic minority populations.
A Home Office spokesman said the cost of the entire campaign, £10,000 ($15,000, 11,500 euros), was less than the £15,000 cost to forcibly remove one illegal immigrant from Britain.
The opposition Labour Party’s home affairs spokeswoman, Yvette Cooper, said the scheme was “ludicrous”.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said ethnic communities would take the billboards as a “sign of open warfare”.
“I think it’s very Big Brother, very state-ish, very sort of East Germany circa the 1980s, it’s just a horrid way of doing it,” the member of the European parliament told LBC radio.
There was also a backlash from British commentators and on social media.
In a commentary on the Guardian newspaper website, user “Pukkah Punjabi”, a graphic designer from London, described how she had called the Home Office and asked them to help her go “home” — to her house in the suburb of Willesden Green.
She said “go home” had been a racist slogan of abuse against migrants when she was growing up in the 1970s.
The Twitter hashtag #racistvan drew a series of other users saying they had texted the ministry to ask for train times and lost keys, while there was even a spoof Twitter account @theracistvan, with the sole message “RT (retweet) if you’re in the UK illegally.”
The Conservatives in particular have been trying to shore up their right-wing credentials on the immigration issue in recent months, with centre-left Labour being seen as weaker on the issue.
In June Britain said it would charge “high-risk” adult visitors from Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Ghana a refundable bond of £3,000 for a six-month visa. – AFP