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Tuesday, September 04, 2001

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U.K.-French refugee row escalates

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, SEPT 3. The asylum row between Britain and France escalated today following reports that far from heeding London's request to shut down a controversial refugee camp close to the Channel tunnel, French authorities planned to open a similar centre.

The move came even as the Home Secretary, Mr. David Blunkett was trying to persuade the French to shift the Sangatte refugee camp which, because of its proximity to the entrance of the tunnel, has become a springboard for illegal immigrants to enter Britain. British authorities fear that the new centre, likely to be located about 25 km from the town of Lile where Eurostar services stop on their way from Paris to London, would open up another ``front''.

There was a sharp reaction here with the media suggesting that a ``political storm'' could be brewing over the issue. ``It is the first test of Mr. Blunkett as Home Secretary'', one TV commentator said.

Both Labour and Tory leaders attacked France, saying the move to set up a second camp was likely to increase pressure on Britain's efforts to check illegal immigration. There were no takers for the official French view that the move was aimed at easing congestion at the Sangatte camp which holds 700 or more refugees, mostly Afghans, Iranian and Turks. The conditions at the camp, run by the International Red Cross, are said to be squalid and with winter approaching refugees are becoming desperate to get out - their preferred destination being Britain, partly because some of them already have relatives or friends here and partly because the only foreign language they know is English.

British MPs were reported to be angry over what The Times described as the ``French inaction over the nightly incursions'' into Britain by illegal immigrants held at Sangatte. The shadow Home Secretary, Ms Ann Widdecombe, accused France of trying to ``pass the buck to us'' and said there was ``no basis for a second Sangatte.''

She echoed the widely held view that the French Government should quickly process the asylum claims of those held at Sangatte, and deport those whose claims are rejected. ``People are not being held at Sangatte while their asylum claims are processed. They are being held there while they make repeated attempts to enter Britain'', she said.

A Labour MP said there was no evidence that the French authorities were taking action against those trying to sneak into Britain. Commentators pointed out that night after night, groups of refugees from Sangatte risked their lives to cross the heavily-guarded tunnel and when intercepted they were simply driven back to the camp. Next evening, they were back at the tunnel to try their luck, they said arguing that there was nothing to ``deter'' them.

Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, has criticised European politicians for capitalising on ``popular instincts'' to oppose immigration. He called for a humane international solution to the problem, and said the West should give more assistance to countries such as Pakistan and Iran which were saddled with refugees from neighbouring regions.

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