A rallying point for refugees, or simply a symbol of how immigration policies have failed?

The rows of blue, white and orange tents stretched out on a dusty concrete floor in a cold aircraft hangar of a building might not seem much like a promised land.

But in spite of its miserable conditions, the Red Cross hostel in Sangatte, outside Calais, has become a rallying point for thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe; a bridgehead to a better life.

Opened three years ago to hide the eyesore of desperate refugees sleeping on the streets of Calais, Sangatte has perversely become a highly visible symbol of the failures of the immigration policies of Britain and France. Used for sustenance and shelter, it is a convenient base for many of its 1,300 desperate residents to make daily attempts to board trains crossing into Britain.

Television footage of these forays – often involving hundreds of asylum-seekers scaling fences and charging security guards – have provided potent material for politicians seeking to exploit public fears over international migration.

Claire Doole, London spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "We do accept that the centre, as it is, is causing a lot of problems, particularly from the image it gives of refugees."

The impression given is that Britain has become the "Holy Grail" for asylum-seekers and that France is happy to ignore its responsibilities and pass on the problem.

The reality is far more complicated. Asylum applications to Britain are higher at 71,700 but fell 11 per cent last year, compared with a 22 per cent increase in claims in France. The 53,875 asylum-seekers applying in France came mostly from Turkey, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo and Algeria.

Cultural distinctions often separate the Sangatte residents from this group. In the main, those living at the Red Cross centre are Afghans and Iraqi Kurds.

Jean Candler, of the Refugee Council, said: "Those are both communities that are well-established in the UK. They are also more likely to speak English than French as their second or third language."

Others choose to come to Britain because they know that their claims of non-state persecution (such as attacks by political extremists, racists or homophobes) will be ruled ineligible in France and Germany.

Despite the perceived tolerance of Britain and its duties under the UN Convention on Refugees 1951, the political sensitivities around immigration have ensured an official policy devised to keep asylum applications at a minimum by making it as difficult as possible to enter the country.

The result is that thousands of asylum-seekers are holed up in Sangatte, plotting their routes across the Channel.

The French authorities declined to regularise their immigration status or invite them to apply to stay in France. The minimal attempts by French police to prevent Sangatte residents boarding British-bound trains at the nearby Frethun yard have also been derided.

British politicians argue that the French government's failure to insist that the Sangatte refugees make their claims in France is an abdication of its obligations under the Dublin Convention, which requires asylum-seekers to apply for help in the first EU state in which they arrive.

French officials say most of those at the Red Cross centre will have entered the EU from Italy, Germany or elsewhere and are not France's responsibility. But the political capital made by the French far-right from public fears over migration mean that Sangatte, and its shocking images of an immigration system in chaos, cannot continue.

Keith Best, of the Immigration Advisory Service, said Britain must be allowed to deploy immigration staff on the French side of the Channel to allow genuine refugees to be brought safely to the UK while handing failed applicants to the French authorities.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Communications Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 6-month part-time contract (24 hours a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Broker

£12000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Vehicle Broker is req...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Data Capture / Telesales

£12000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific