Eurotunnel tries to close French refugee centre

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Eurotunnel officials asked a French court to close a refugee camp which it claims is the centre of organised illegal immigration. The camp, near Sangatte, Calais, presents a nightly security threat to the Channel Tunnel train terminal, say Eurotunnel, because a "stream of people" head for it when night falls.

The British government wants to fine Eurotunnel £2,000 for every immigrant who enters the UK illegally on its trains. Last week, in a separate action, Eurotunnel applied for a judicial review in the High Court of the Home Office's proposed fines, to be imposed on companies whose transport is used by illegal immigrants.

Eurotunnel said Sangatte contained many asylum-seekers whose sole aim was "to reach the UK and who trespass on the terminal in ever-increasing numbers". Inhabitants of the camp, a Eurotunnel building requisitioned by French authorities in September 1999 for the Red Cross, pose a nightly security threat to the train tunnel, said the company.

The former Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, told BBC Radio 4's World at One yesterday: "I have visited the centre at Sangatte and it exists simply and solely to provide food and shelter for people who want to enter this country illegally. When we were in government they were returned to France so their claims for asylum could be dealt with in France, and the sooner we get back to that the better."

Eurotunnel has issued a writ in the administrative court in Lille, northern France, requesting an annulment of the requisition of the building. The firm said the writ underlined "the incompatibility of the requisition with the duty of the French state to ensure the security of the French terminal".

More than 18,000 asylum seekers have been apprehended at the terminal so far this year, but since they are immediately returned to the Sangatte centre, they can try to board a train again the same evening.

The tunnel operator expects the case to take a month to come before the courts. Then it will ask for an immediate suspension of the use of the building as a refugee centre, while the case is being heard.

Up to 1,275 refugees live in cramped, squalid conditions in the camp, says Eurotunnel. It was originally intended to house a maximum of 200 people temporarily.

A spokeswoman for the French Red Cross said the building was large enough to house present numbers adequately and safely. "If the centre were to be closed tomorrow, it is up to the authorities to re-house the refugees," she said.

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said more refugees could die taking increasingly desperate action to get across the Channel if Sangatte was closed. A man drowned this week after jumping off a Channel ferry.

Eurotunnel has spent more than £3m on security to protect its Coquelle terminal, two kilometres from Sangatte. It has 100 night security guards, dog patrols, gates topped with razor wire and 200 CCTV cameras.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Closure wouldn't solve the problem because those determined to reach the UK will still gather in Calais regardless. The French are dealing with facilitators and racketeers at Sangatte and secured several successful prosecutions."