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Barrister plays leading role in poster campaign promoting immigration

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Award winning lawyer warns that senior politicians of all stripes must guard against turning the debate “toxic” as nationwide message is pitched at public

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A high-profile barrister is featuring in a crowd-funded poster campaign promoting a positive message about the benefits of immigration to the UK.

S Chelvan from the London branch of the country’s biggest chambers — Birmingham-based No 5 — is one of 15 individuals depicted in “I am an immigrant” posters and hordings displayed nationwide.

Chelvan — named as legal aid barrister of the year in 2014 at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group awards — was selected from 200 applicants that saw the crowd-funded campaign first mooted on Twitter.

“The debate around immigration has become toxic,” Chelvan told Legal Cheek today. “And some of the mainstream political parties have let that happen.

“However, migrants contribute hugely to UK society and we have to focus on the benefits they bring and stop stigmatising them. This campaign injects human faces into the debate. And the response on social media has been brilliant.”

Chelvan came to the UK from Sri Lanka in 1978 when he was four years old. He joined his mother, who was studying to become a member of the Royal College of Anesthetists. The previous year, his native Colombo was torn apart by sectarian rioting and violence targeting the Tamil minority.

His parents decided that as Tamils they would be safer in the UK and initially intended to stay temporarily. But by 1981, with the situation in Sri Lanka improving little, the family was granted permanent leave to remain in Britain.

Chelvan took a first in politics and law at Southampton University in 1998 before heading for the bar vocational course at the then Inns of Court School of Law.

He followed that with a visiting research fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago, and an LLM at Harvard Law School in 2001.

Chelvan did pupillage at Doughty Street Chambers and 2 Garden Court in London; he joined No 5 in January 2011.

But the barrister has not yet finished his studies — he is currently in the final stages of a PhD at King’s College, London University, focusing on issues around sex and gender in UK asylum claims.

“To say that we don’t have a controlled immigration system in this country is utter nonsense,” Chelvan said, dismissing scare mongering across the political spectrum. “We are a more tolerant society than the Britain of the 1970s and 80s because we are much more diverse. But there is still a lot of unhelpful political rhetoric around the issue.”

The poster campaign has been organised by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Migrant Voice. It originally hoped to raise £44,000 through crowd funding, but in fact raked in some £11,000 more than that target.

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The funds have financed some 400 posters on the London Underground and Newcastle Metro. There are also 500 in bus and railway shelters around the country, as well as a series of billboards, with Chelvan’s image gracing the biggest hording in Ramsgate in Kent.