Eurotunnel fails in move to close asylum centre

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The Independent Online

Eurotunnel lost the first round of its legal battle yesterday to force the closure of the refugee centre near the mouth of the Channel Tunnel that it says encourages illegal immigration to Britain. A French court rejected the Anglo-French company's request for an emergency ruling to close the Sangatte centre near Calais, from which asylum-seekers make nightly forays to try to board trains to England.

In two or three months, the Administrative Tribunal in Lille will hear the full legal argument for a cancellation of the French government's requisition two years ago of a building owned by Eurotunnel to house the refugee shelter.

But the court decided yesterday that Eurotunnel had failed to prove the "urgency" of the refugee crisis in Calais was directly linked to the requisition of a building close to the tunnel.

The focus now switches to political efforts to ease the crisis, starting with a working dinner in Paris tonight between the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and the French Interior Minister, Daniel Vaillant.

Eurotunnel complained at yesterday's interim hearing that it was under daily siege and that the dream of the Channel Tunnel has been turned into a nightmare. The French government had allowed Sangatte to become a "veritable launching pad for clandestine immigration", it said. Two hundred would-be illegal migrants a day are arrested in Eurotunnel freight and passenger terminals. Although the proximity of the refugee centre to the tunnel was not the sole cause of the crisis, it acted as a "catalyst", a "psychological encouragement" to refugees and a base for people-smugglers.

The company's lawyer accused the French government of abandoning its responsibility to control its own borders but also its specific treaty obligations to prevent all obstacles to the fluid operation of the Channel Tunnel. Maitre Jean-Pierre Boivin said the nightly siege of the tunnel – forcing lengthy searches and the cancellation of dozens of freight and passenger shuttles – had thrown operations into chaos.

"The Channel Tunnel is a dream of humanity, a dream that some feared," he said. "A dream which, like all dreams, can become a nightmare. That is what we are living through today." The French government said that under French law, the Administrative Court could only reverse a decision made by the public authorities if a complaint was made immediately. By waiting two years, Eurotunnel had lost the right to object to the requisition of its building for the refugee centre.

The government's lawyer, Maitre Claire Daval, said that Sangatte had been created in 1999, when families of refugees, including small children, were sleeping rough in the streets and parks of Calais. Under French law, the refugees were illegal migrants but "non- expulsable" because they came from countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the population was oppressed by the government. They declined to seek asylum in France because that would bar them from seeking asylum in Britain, which they regarded as their El Dorado, she said.

The French government had a humanitarian duty to provide the refugees with living conditions of "a minimum decency", she added. Why were they not housed many miles from the tunnel in, say, Paris or Avignon? "Because they are determined to get to England and, if we did that, they would again end up in the streets of Calais and Sangatte."