Immigrants find a secret back door

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The Independent Online

It's the secret back door to London through which illegal immigrants enter Britain. Far from the well-known entry ports such as Dover, about 200 a week arrive on ferries at Purfleet, just 10 miles down the Thames from Tower Bridge.

It's the secret back door to London through which illegal immigrants enter Britain. Far from the well-known entry ports such as Dover, about 200 a week arrive on ferries at Purfleet, just 10 miles down the Thames from Tower Bridge.

On the Calais-Dover route last week, cars as well as lorries began to be searched by security guards employed by P&O Stena. So far, 70 illegal immigrants have been found. Under new legislation, both car and lorry drivers and ferry companies face large fines for smuggling illegal immigrants.

But at Purfleet, five large ferries from Zeebrugge in Belgium dock every day. They are supposed to be freight-only, but many carry an illegal cargo of refugees.

Few people outside the freight industry even know that there is a ferry terminal at Purfleet. But refugee-smuggling gangs operating from the continent certainly do.

Unlike the Calais-Dover route, Purfleet terminal has no full-time government security regime, no immigration officers, no police officers on site, and no detection equipment of the type being used by P&O on every lorry using its ferries.

One worker at the terminal told the Independent on Sunday: "The illegals wait until the containers and trailers are unloaded into the warehouse. Then they get out. Each day you can see them. They're of every nationality. Some are stopped by the terminal security company but most just walk out. Up the road and turn left and hop on the train at Purfleet station, up to Liverpool Street and then disappear."

The staff member added: "Security call the police. Sometimes the police are too busy and don't bother coming down. Other times they [the illegals] are just given a note telling them how to go to the Home Office in Croydon. Occasionally, the police take them away."

Another worker at the terminal: "There is no doubt that this route is being used by organised smuggling. Recently, we had about 20 chaps get out of a container. I would say they were from Pakistan. Each was smartly dressed in suit and tie and carrying a briefcase. Out they got and marched off together to the railway station."

Most local residents confirm the constant stream of refugees flowing past their front doors. Most are reluctant to be identified, but Bulent Selen, an immigration adviser who has lived in Purfleet for 40 years, said the local estimate was that 200 refugees a week walk out of the terminal.

"It's an open door and it's still happening, every day. I saw an Arab-looking man walk by this morning on his way to the station. There are people from Eastern Europe, China and Pakistan, from everywhere. Sometimes there are 10, sometimes 15, sometimes groups of 20 people. They are very well organised. Some are picked up by minibuses outside the gates. Some have the phone numbers of cab companies in Grays and they order a taxi.

"I heard of case where a taxi firm charged each refugee $100 to take them into London. On one occasion I saw five Chinese men being chased by a police car. One was so desperate to escape he ran right in the path of an articulated lorry and was nearly killed. Three got away."

One resident said the numbers were probably greater than those seen leaving the terminal. "There is no doubt round here that some refugees stay in the trailers until they are driven off. You hear about people seen jumping out of the back of lorries on the A13."

A spokeswoman for Essex Police agreed that refugees using the terminal had been increasing. "There has been an awful lot especially since the end of the summer," she said. "We are phoned by the security guards who detain them. They are then taken to Grays police station who notify immigration officers in Ipswich, who then pick them up. If there are children involved we call social services."

Official confusion reigns over what to do with the illegals and the extent of the problem. A spokeswoman for the Immigration Service said it had no immigration officers at the terminal because it was freight-only. "We do have some security guards. They tell the refugees to go to our office in Croydon," she added.

The spokeswoman said the Home Office believed the vast majority did make their own way to Croydon. "It's in their interest to do so. Otherwise they cannot claim asylum."

The Home Office said it had recorded 298 refugees arriving at Purfleet in the last 11 months of 1999: "That dropped to 93 in January and was down to 20 in November." Asked about Essex Police's claim that the number had recently increased, and local workers' and residents' contention that 200 a week were seen walking out of the depot, its spokeswoman said: "I'll have to get back to you." Twenty minutes later, she rang back: "All we would be prepared to say is we are grateful for the information. Any claims of people-trafficking will be investigated."

The Purfleet ferry terminal is owned and run by Cobelfret Ferries of Zeebrugge, a family-run company. It declined to comment.

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