Asylum-seekers on the run after 100 stow away on freight train

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The Independent Online

Dozens of asylum-seekers were in hiding in Britain last night after 100 people stowed away on a freight train that arrived in Kent through the Channel Tunnel.

The fugitives were among scores of people who jumped out of the train's wagons as it arrived in the Dollands Moor depot near Folkestone at 6pm on Monday. Some were rounded up in the grounds but others evaded security staff and escaped over fences.

British Transport Police said some of the asylum-seekers had been found on the nearby M20 but 26 men were still unaccounted for. Rail staff said 74 asylum-seekers had been handed over to the immigration authorities.

The incident was the biggest known influx of asylum-seekers on a single train into Britain, and prompted the freight company English, Welsh and Scottish Railways (EWS) to accuse the British and French governments of wrecking its business.

The embarrassment comes within days of a pledge by the French rail operator SNCF to reinstate a full rail freight service through the tunnel after improving security at a freight yard in Frethun, near Calais, where many asylum-seekers have been making daily attempts to board trains.

Phillip Mengel, the chief executive of EWS, said: "The UK Government is overseeing the systematic collapse of the international rail freight business, as a direct result of the actions of the French government. After five months of disruption and empty promises by the French government a significant trading corridor between Britain and Europe is on the verge of closure. If the UK Government is committed to seeking a rapid return to international rail freight services, it must deliver."

Rail freight services through the tunnel have been restricted since November. Some 1,700 trains have been cancelled. Services were suspended for almost two weeks last month when 200 migrants invaded the Frethun depot, which is run by SNCF.

The suspension, which did not affect Eurostar and Shuttle services, was lifted after the French government drafted in 60 more police officers to stop asylum-seekers storming the yard. But 20 asylum-seekers went missing last week after travelling through the tunnel on another freight train. A further nine were caught.

Graham Smith, a planning director for EWS, said the company had received "several assurances" from the French railways and the French authorities that security had improved. He said: "It is absolutely ridiculous. The staff in the yard at Frethun were meant to have inspected the train and told the driver it was OK to go. As soon as the train arrives in the UK, the asylum-seekers burst out, putting themselves at great risk of electrocution and of being hit by other trains.

"This is extremely dangerous for them, but these are desperate people, which demonstrates why we need much better security measures in France." Mr Smith said EWS services had been cut from as many as 18 a day to between five and eight, operating in the hours of darkness. The cuts had led to an extra 70,000 lorries on the roads of Kent and the South-east and had undermined the Government's target of achieving 80 per cent growth in freight carried by rail, he said.

A spokesperson for SNCF said the train was sealed in Milan and security guards at Frethun would only check wagons on which the seals had been broken.

* About 40 detainees at an immigration centre in Scotland went on hunger strike yesterday in protest at the time taken to deal with their cases. The Dungavel detention centre near Strathaven, Lanarkshire, which has a capacity of 150, opened in September.