It created a fake organisation called On The Move, complete with a logo and glossy branding, which claims to “provide migrants in transit with free, reliable and important information”.
Links to the website were pushed out to asylum seekers in France and Belgium as part of a social media campaign that cost the government £23,000 over five months.
The website, using a .org domain commonly associated with charities, contains no government branding and the “about us” section does not disclose any link to the Home Office.
Research by The Independent shows the website was set up in April 2020, using a private registration tool that conceals the owners’ personal information.
It invites asylum seekers to email On The Move with questions, without knowing that they would be contacting the British government.
The website, which remains online, tells readers the UK “regularly returns people who enter via irregular routes” but in reality, Britain has not been able to deport asylum seekers to EU countries since 1 January because of Brexit.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said: “Priti Patel’s chaotic management of the Home Office has led to thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on an advertising campaign that’s false, disgraceful and dehumanising.
“We need an asylum policy that focuses on tackling the gangs profiteering from people trafficking, reopening safe and legal routes and to drop the government’s ineffective bill that breaks the Refugee Convention.”
The website was created as part of a campaign with which the Home Office “aimed to dissuade migrants in France and Belgium from attempting irregular entry into the UK”.
A Freedom of Information request by the PA news agency revealed it paid £23,200 for targeted adverts to be placed on Facebook and Instagram in English, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Pashto between December and April, all linked to the On The Move website and carrying slogans including “don’t put your or your child’s life in danger”, “we will return you” and “there is no hiding place”.
Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, said: “I’m shocked that our government is determined to spend more time and money deterring and misleading vulnerable people.
“Those who make it to our shores are often traumatised, having made life-threatening journeys to escape from some of the world’s most dangerous countries. It’s about time this government showed some compassion and stepped up to help.”
Anyone visiting the On The Move website is initially asked whether they are “considering travelling to the UK irregularly”.
Those clicking “yes” are taken to a page with links on the dangers of the journey, the “legal risks” and the “realities” of life in Europe.
The website has a page on “safe and legal alternatives” but none of them detail how to seek asylum in the UK specifically, or how to reach Britain.
Instead, it focuses on France, Belgium and other EU countries, or directs asylum seekers to information on how to “return to their home country voluntarily”.
The Home Office said that posts linking to the website were made from its “clearly branded” official Facebook and Instagram accounts as part of its campaign.
It said posts about prosecutions for steering boats predated changes to Crown Prosecution Service guidance, and maintained it can still deport asylum seekers.
The website was created amid record small boat crossings over the English Channel, which have risen despite an overall fall in asylum applications because of changes sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Home Office has been pushing to jail asylum seekers who steer small boats as “people smugglers” and the Nationality and Borders Bill, if enacted, would criminalise any migrant who crosses the Channel by creating a new criminal offence.
It would also make it easier to prosecute migrants for steering boats or assisting asylum seekers who arrive via irregular routes.
Dan O’Mahoney, who was appointed clandestine channel threat commander last year, said: “We are seeing an unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings.
“The migrants communications campaign ran to deter migrants located in France and Belgium who were intending to make dangerous attempts to enter the UK by small boat or hidden in lorries over the winter months.
“The campaign featured a range of important messages, highlighting the risk to life of making these deadly journeys and providing information on claiming asylum in the safe country they are in. We make no excuse for providing important and potentially lifesaving information.”
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