Baby held as blitz traps 22 stowaways in 4 hours

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The new crackdown on illegal immigrants trying to enter Britain in trucks from Calais uncovered 22 stowaways in the first four hours of compulsory searches yesterday.

The new crackdown on illegal immigrants trying to enter Britain in trucks from Calais uncovered 22 stowaways in the first four hours of compulsory searches yesterday.

The hunters are French security guards hired by Britain's biggest ferry company, P&O Stena Line, which is searching each of the 750,000 lorries it carries from Calais to Dover every year. Officials said the sheer number found over three ferry sailings underlines the scale of people-smuggling. The ferry company said it more than justified its £500,000 investment.

"It proves just how enormous the problem is," said Mr Tony Marsh, P&O Stena's operations director, as he watched the would-be immigrants being unloaded yesterday. He said: "This morning we have saved the company possible fines of £44,000 had they reached our ships [and] protected the lorry drivers from fines of £2,000 per illegal, had they been caught carrying them into England."

The company is liable under the Carriers Liability Act, which imposes a penalty of £2,000 on ferry operators for every illegal immigrant it brings to Britain. In the past 30 months its bill under the Act runs into millions, although each case is open to negotiation with the Government. The company has so far paid out £100,000.

Freight customers are also highly vulnerable; the Government has already issued 627 penalty notices to drivers, involving 3,582 illegal immigrants, many of whom crossed the Channel on P&O Stena ferries. In addition, 164 trucks were seized in lieu of unpaid fines.

Yesterday's searches began before dawn under the orange arc lights of the Calais dock loading area. More than 20 security men from the Secur-Nord company began to inspect each truck waiting to board, using £800 British-made CO 2 gas detectors which can trace human breath.

Within an hour a French-registered lorry was targeted as a likely prospect. It was driven to a secure area and searched by French border police who ushered seven bedraggled Iraqis out into a barrage of photographers' flashguns and television lights.

Minutes later, another truck, this one from Italy, was searched after human breath was detected. Three stowaways, an Afghan and two Kurds swore at journalists and covered their heads as they clambered out. Two hours later, a pathetic family of five Albanians filed out from a Dutch lorry. First came a girl, aged about seven, then two boys under 10, and finally their parents, struggling to maintain their dignity.

But if the family was ashamed, the Dutch lorry driver, Hans Watterschoot was not. "I am delighted," he said. "The security check has probably saved me £10,000." Like other drivers, he had no idea how the family got on board.

The morning had more secrets to reveal. A French truck, searched by Calais port staff and bound for a rival SeaFrance ferry, was found to contain another family of five, including a mother and a baby.

And just before lunch an Irish lorry was opened to reveal six men and a woman from Eastern Europe.

What astonished many was the number of illegal immigrants risking travel on the day the scheme started, after a barrage of publicity. "It seems inexplicable," said Chris Laming. P&O Stena's director of communications. "But they are desperate to get to the UK and desperation leads people to extreme risks."

Those found yesterday are being interviewed by French police. They are likely to return to the Red Cross reception centre at nearby Sangatte, where more than 1,000 people are awaiting their chance to make a run for Britain.