Refugees set their sights on Britain

Kim Sengupta
Friday 20 August 1999 23:02

THE FACTORY on the coast at Sangatte used to make equipment for the Channel tunnel. It is now a desolate and cavernous hulk whipped by the North Sea wind. And it is here the young men among the hundreds of refugees gathered in Calais are being penned by French authorities.

Living in pitiful conditions, guarded by the feared riot police, the CRS, they gaze over twisted metal girders to ferries and hovercraft heading for England, the desired new home now barred to them.

Agim Bashi, for one, has had enough. The young Kosovar, who said the shop he owned in Pristina was burnt by the Serbs, was off yesterday to try to make Blackheath, in south-east London, to join his sister and brother in law. "I tried the Eurostar last week but they caught me because I had no papers," he said. "But the ship is better. I am a genuine refugee, not fake like some of the others. I know that once I get to England I can prove this is so, but it is not easy."

The numbers of refugees in Calais has ebbed and flowed. At one point it was more than 4,000, now it is around 400, most claiming to be Kosovars.

There is evidence some are from Albania rather than Kosovo. But saying they come from the war-ravaged state means they cannot be easily deported and gives them a much better chance of settling in the west than as economic migrants.

Welfare agencies here say almost all of them want to settle in the UK. Veronique Desinclos, president of a local charity, La Belle Etoile, said: "I've told them repeatedly we can try to get them the legal right to stay in France, as we have done with others like the Afghanis, Iranians and Kurds. But out of 150 Kosovars I spoke to, just one agreed - then they changed their mind overnight. They all want to go to the UK."

But all the signals suggest the UK does not want them. Earlier this week there were ugly confrontations in Dover between local youths and refugees, with openly-voiced racism. The British Government has been pressing the French to do something about the refugee flow from Calais.

A few days ago French police arrested more than 200 for not having appropriate papers, and shut down a tented town in Parc St Pierre, in the centre of Calais. The inhabitants were dispersed, families to a training centre at the city's hospital, and the single men to Sangatte.

The mayor, Jean-Jacques Barthe, a former communist, and the sub-prefect, Yannick Imbert, say they would like nothing better than to be rid of this problem. And there is certainly no encouragement for these outsiders, no social security benefits, or even food provided by the state.

Madame Desinclos said: "Until this week when they dispersed the refugees and put them in these new places absolutely nothing has been done for them by the authorities in Calais. The mayor said it is a problem for the Paris government. The sub-prefect actually asked us to stop feeding these people, he said he was being pressurised by the British. But we can't let them starve - there are children here."

So far around 150 men, Albanian, French and British, have been convicted of involvement in smuggling illegal immigrants. The French authorities say this shows their commitment. But British lorry drivers in Calais say local police and customs turn a blind eye to the traffic. Chris Byrne and Mark Dixon, drivers with the Durham-based haulage firm, Peter Cook, say they frequently to find refugees trying to smuggle themselves onto lorries and trucks.

Mr Byrne, 32, said: "Most of our drivers have had this and the French don't care. About three weeks ago I was carrying pallets of wine from Bordeaux. I over-nighted in a lay-by and next morning I discovered 30 refugees huddled on top of the pallets. I thought I'd got them all out, but two burly men who refused to leave. I told the police at Le Shuttle and they managed to get them off. Then they arrested me and held me for four hours."

Mr Dixon said: "The other day there were 10 refugees found in the back of a lorry. They were removed and immediately went on the phone. Suddenly two men appeared and started offering money to us drivers to take them in. I was offered pounds 10,000. That shows how much cash there is in this."

In the training centre dormitory amid rows of beds Miranda Lekaj held up her baby daughter Desara and said: "Look, she is five months old and she cannot see her father. He is in London, why can't we join him? We have suffered, my sister was killed by the Serbs. Our suffering continues."

Miranda, 20, and her brother-in-law Skender thought it would be easy to join up with her husband, Lulzim, in Britain. Skender said: "I don't know what is happening, we are all just stuck here." Sami Kola, 42, with his family on the next bed, said he, his wife Lulietta and 15-year- old daughter Lusjoma are from Prizren and spent months in a refugee camp in Macedonia after fleeing. Yet, he cannot remember the name of the camp or where it was, and he's decidedly hazy about Prizren. Several other families show a similar ignorance about their supposed home-towns.

A French policeman nearby had no doubts. "Most of these aren't Kosovars, they are Albanians. Our interpreters spot this easily, they have different accents and different ways of speaking. Anyway, most of the people who can afford it get smuggled to England. We see people come and disappear."

At a bar near the waterfront, Arsin, in his smart light grey suit, sipped his vodka and tonic and said: "I am not involved myself at all. But there are criminals who are taking advantage of these poor people. They hand over lots of money, sometimes thousands of pounds, on the promise they will get there. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, but they never get their money back." Arsin, who lives "somewhere in the Home Counties", shrugged and spread his hands.

Mark Watts, Labour MEP whose constituency covers Dover, arrived in Calais yesterday hoping for talks with the sub-prefect. M Imbert refused to meet him which Mr Watts found "disgraceful".

He said what he had witnessed in Calais was "extreme inefficiency and bungling. The French need to recognise this is a national priority, as we have in the UK. We need to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and bogus economic migrants. We know criminal gangs are making sure people are illegally getting into the UK and this must be stopped."

A hundred yards down the road Ibrahim Hasani held the hand of his four- year-old boy Selim and said: "My wife was killed by the Cetniks (Serbian paramilitary) and our home was destroyed. There is nothing left for me in Kosovo.

"I would like to start a new life for my son in England. I remember how the British helped us during the war. I think we can have a good life there. I am a hard worker, I will earn enough for me and my boy. All we need is a chance. Why should people be afraid of us?"

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