David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is seeking urgent talks with his French counterpart over a controversial plan to build a second centre for asylum-seekers near France's Channel ports.
British ministers fear the new centre will merely act as a magnet for more asylum-seekers and are privately furious with the French response to the tide of people trying to enter Britain from France. "We are not getting much help," said one Government source.
Tony Blair, back at Downing Street after his summer break, was briefed on the growing crisis yesterday by Mr Blunkett and may raise the issue with Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister.
Mr Blunkett has requested fresh talks with Daniel Vaillant, the French Interior Minister, to whom he expressed concern about the existing centre at Sangatte, near Calais, in July. Sangatte was designed to house 650 people and now holds more than 1,600.
In public, Number 10 sought to play down the dispute. "The problem is on the French side of the Channel and it is up to them to deal with it," said Mr Blair's official spokesman. "We could no more tell them what to do any more than they could tell us what to do."
Amid rising concern about the number of asylum-seekers who go missing in Britain, the Government is drawing up plans to crack down on employers who knowingly take on illegal immigrants and often pay them poverty wages.
Increased numbers of immigration service officials would police employers, while the National Criminal Intelligence Service would be asked to take the pressure off local police forces, which complain of rising trafficking in people.
The plans would also allow asylum-seekers the right to work in Britain instead of relying on state vouchers.This would help legitimate refugees but come down hard on failed asylum-seekers or those who employed illegal immigrants.
Home Office internal research revealed that the number of foreign nationals found to be working illegally has soared in the past three years. Officials estimate that some 30,000 illegal immigrants work in the agriculture sector alone and that a third of all casual workers may be illegal.
The French government denied suggestions that plans for a second Red Cross camp for would-be illegal migrants would worsen the cross-Channel immigration crisis.
French officials said that the second camp at Bailleul, near Lille – likely to be confirmed this week – would be 30 miles inland from the centre at Sangatte. This would make it much harder for asylum-seekers to make their nightly attempts to cross into Britain.
The second centre, likely to be built in the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, is intended to relieve pressure and tensions at Sangatte and, implicitly, to test whether a camp further inland could answer British complaints about French "complicity" in illegal cross-Channel migration.
Marc Gentilini, president of the French Red Cross, said yesterday that it would be "stupid" to close Sangatte. "If the British government did not offer advantageous conditions to migrants, there would not be so many illegals who use Britain as a staging post towards the US and Canada," he said.
The Channel Tunnel operator, Eurotunnel, said a second refugee camp would be "disastrous" and would exacerbate the existing problems.
Leading article, Review, page 3; John Lichfield,
Review, page 5