Second refugee centre opens in France, but officials deny it is 'another Sangatte'

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The Independent Online

Some asylum-seekers from the Sangatte holding-camp near the Channel Tunnel have been moved to a new centre on the Channel coast 80 miles further south.

The opening of the new centre – a plan that was initially denied by French officials two months ago – appears to fly in the face of assurances given to the British Government that there would not be a "second Sangatte".

But French authorities said the centre, in a disused electricity company holiday camp on the seafront at Cayeux-sur-Mer in Somme departmente, was a considerable distance from Calais and other Channel ports, and would be open only to "volunteers" who chose to leave the overcrowded conditions at Sangatte in return for making a formal application to remain in France. By doing so, the refugees abandon any possibility under European Union law of being allowed to stay in Britain, even if they manage to cross the Channel illegally.

The centre, which is currently housing just 19 people, is intended by the French authorities to ease the refugee housing situation in the Calais area, not make it worse.

The opening of the holding-camp – run, like Sangatte, by the French Red Cross – may nonetheless be seized upon by opposition politicians in Britain, who are already playing up the alleged failure of Red Cross officials to prevent an invasion of the Channel Tunnel by 139 refugees on Christmas Day.

The BBC reported on Thursday that the deputy director of the Sangatte centre, Michel Mariaux, knew about the refugee's plans to storm the tunnel but chose not to inform the French police or Eurotunnel security officials.

Mr Mariaux has since told the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, that his comments to the BBC were mistranslated. He had said he knew that a group of about 150 refugees had left the camp but did not know, or inquire, what their plans were.

The BBC insisted that its translation of the interview was accurate, however it did not put the original, French version of Mr Mariaux's comments on its website, only the voice-over translation.

The shadow home secretary, Anne Widdecombe, said Mr Mariaux's position was "untenable" and that he should be sacked. The French Red Cross rejected this possibility.

Officials at the organisation's headquarters in Paris said Mr Mariaux's comments reflected his job as someone engaged in "humanitarian" work, not frontier security.

"The Sangatte camp is not a prison. People have a right to come and go, day and night. What they do outside is not our responsibility," the official said.

A French court has jailed four of the refugees who broke down security fences during the Christmas Day invasion.

The four refugees – three Iraqi Kurds and an Afghan – were given four month jail sentences by a court in Boulogne for "group destruction of property" and entering France illegally.

Mostly, refugees who are caught inside the Eurotunnel terminal at Calais are simply returned to the Sangatte camp. The jail sentences imposed on Thursday night reflect the somewhat tougher policy adopted by the French authorities since the summer.

Ahmad Rachid, 21, Aomil Kakabira, 21, Ismaël Tapol, 19, and Reza Mohamad, 21, are considered to have been ring-leaders of the group which stormed the tunnel entrance at 9pm on Christmas Day. Forty other refugees were arrested but were later returned to the Red Cross camp.