The British and French governments are discussing the creation of a new immigrant holding centre within the Calais docks which would be "inside Britain" under immigration law and allow cross-Channel asylum-seekers to be shipped back to their home countries easily.
Although no details have yet been agreed, the idea is to exploit the ambiguous legal status of a British "control zone" of the Calais port, created in 2003, to cut through the mesh of legal difficulties which prevent asylum-seekers from being expelled to their countries of origin.
The idea – discussed by the British and French immigration ministers last month – seeks to turn the tables on the asylum-seekers and the gangs who smuggle them into northern France. At present, the immigrants gathered in Calais, mostly from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and the Horn of Africa, can exploit contradictions and grey areas in European and international law on immigration and asylum to evade expulsion from France. They can be arrested repeatedly only to be freed to try to enter Britain illegally again.
The holding centre would potentially allow London and Paris to use the ambiguous status of the British "control zone" at Calais to send the migrants home. If agreed, the centre is likely to attract the scrutiny of civil liberties and human rights groups.
The creation of an "offshore, on-shore" holding centre, which helps London and Paris cut through the thickets of asylum law, may invite parallels with Guantanamo Bay. Although the idea would be to hold the asylum-seekers for only a short time in humane conditions, the immigrants would have fallen into a legal limbo of their own making.
Hints of the Franco-British discussions were dropped this week by the British Immigration minister, Phil Woolas. He said Britain and France were discussing a new "detention centre" in Calais where illegal immigrants would be held "after passing through British immigration controls" within the Calais docks. They would be sent back to their home countries on charter flights.
Mr Woolas said that London and Paris wanted to "send a message" to immigrants and their smugglers. "We want to increase the profile of the deportations because we have to get the message back to Afghanistan and Iraq that Britain is not the Promised Land," he said.
The minister's remarks were widely mocked in the British press after they were – allegedly – dismissed the same night by the French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson. In fact, M. Besson did not repudiate Mr Woolas. He said France had no intention of building a new Sangatte refugee camp – a different animal entirely. The French government was embarrassed, and angered, by the British minister's remarks, because the words "detention centre" have a sinister, historical ring to the French. Paris prefers to speak about a "retention centre".
In the scramble to mock Mr Woolas, his key words were missed. The new detention centre – or retention centre – would be built beyond the line of British immigration controls in Calais docks.
Another hint was given in a statement by the UK Border Agency the next day. "We are determined to work with the French to maintain one of the toughest border crossings in the world and are looking at all options," the agency said. "The Immigration minister met his counterpart last month to discuss how to achieve this and there are ongoing discussions about what form of facility could be built within Calais port."
In 2003, Britain and France agreed a "juxtaposed border controls" treaty as part of the deal which allowed the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp. French border police, with guns, operate at Dover, within a "control zone" which remains part of Britain but falls under some aspects of French law. British immigration officers police a similar "control zone" in the Calais docks, covered by some aspects of British law, while remaining a sovereign part of France.
In effect, once someone enters the control zone, he or she is legally in the UK, although they are in France. The negotiations are believed to focus on the ambiguous bi-national status of this "British" zone in the Calais docks, the first "British" toehold in Calais for 500 years.
At present, French courts refuse to send illegal immigrants back to countries where they may be persecuted. Asylum-seekers making for Britain refuse to claim asylum in France. If they did so, they would lose all right, under EU and international treaties, to claim asylum in Britain. The men in Calais could seek to remain in France but refuse to do so because they are convinced they will have more opportunities in the UK.
Typically, a would-be immigrant breaks into Calais docks and is arrested before or after he scrambles aboard a lorry. He is detained but has to be freed by the French after a few days. He returns to Calais port and tries his luck over and over again.
At the height of the Sangatte "crisis", there were 2,000 migrants in Calais. After the closure of the camp in 2002, the numbers fell but they have climbed again to between 700 and 1,000. The improvement of port defences means far fewer migrants reach Britain. This has helped swell the numbers and frustration in Calais. There have been more fights between migrant groups and even attacks on lorry drivers. The French authorities are under increasing pressure, including from a recent feature film, Welcome, to give humanitarian aid to migrants living rough in "the "jungle" – scrubland near Calais port.
The Anglo-French plan for a "retention" centre within the UK zone of Calais docks would, it is hoped, change the rules of the game. Quite how is unclear. The "illegals" might be sent home without them coming under French or British law – but this would be challenged by human rights groups. Alternately, a holding centre in the docks would allow the authorities to bring pressure on the immigrants to seek asylum in France or be sent straight home. London and Paris hope to make sufficient progress to make an announcement when President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown meet in May.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, last night said the Government was right to look for new ways to seal off the Channel but warned: "We have to know under what law – French law or British law? – they are held and what their rights are for representation."