Spot customs checks for Eurostar

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Random customs checks are being introduced to stop false asylum seekers attempting to enter Britain through the Channel tunnel, the Government said yesterday.

More than 500 people travelled on Eurostar without passports or visas and claimed asylum on arrival in the United Kingdom in the first six months of 1997. Many are thought to have come from safe countries in Europe rather than the dangerous countries, such as Somalia, they claim.

Now the French government has agreed that police at the Gare du Nord terminal in Paris should randomly check passengers' documents.

The immigration minister, Mike O'Brien, said he was grateful for the co-operation of the French government but it was only a "temporary solution". "We need to have the checks carried out systematically and we are anxious to move forward to close the loophole ... in our immigration controls," he said.

He said he was convinced that organised racketeers were behind the abuse. "The Government is committed to firm but fair immigration controls. We intend to crack down on the racketeers for the sake of genuine asylum seekers who face enormous problems and deserve our support."

Unlike airlines, Eurostar is not subject to the Carriers Liability Act which can lead to fines of up to pounds 2,000 for every passenger landed without proper documents in Britain.

After revelations two weeks ago that a flood of asylum seekers had arrived from Paris, Mr O'Brien said: "Over a period of time we have been asking Eurostar to take steps to improve controls. They have not done so. They comply only with their legal obligations."

Yesterday he said the Government was considering whether to impose the Act on Eurostar.