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Saturday, 6 July, 2002, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
UN offers to step in over Sangatte
Refugees head for Britain via the Chunnel
Sangatte refugees target the Channel Tunnel
The United Nations has offered to help break the British and French stalemate over the controversial Sangatte refugee camp near Calais.

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers has said the organisation would be prepared to screen the 1,200 residents of the camp near Calais to assess which were genuine refugees.

The former Dutch prime minister suggested the "few hundred" who were likely to qualify for refugee status could then be split between Britain and France, in an interview with the Guardian.

Refugees at Sangatte
Britain wants the camp closed
Britain is pressing for the closure of the camp, which it believes acts as a magnet for illegal immigrants trying to cross through the Channel Tunnel into the UK.

France, however, is insisting that Britain pushes through new asylum legislation before it acts.

Mr Lubbers' offer to intervene came in a meeting with UK Home Secretary David Blunkett on Thursday.

The UNHCR's Rupert Colville, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it would screen the immigrants if both governments agree.

"We told the French and British governments that...we could help them sort out the problem at Sangatte by screening the occupants on the spot instead of waiting for them to make their attempts to cross the Channel and then get them screened," he said.

"The common sense solution would be that if there was a very good reason why they should be in the UK rather than France that could be the direction they go, but if there is no particular reason then maybe they could stay in France."

Criticism

Mr Lubbers said in the Guardian the UNHCR's assessment is that only a limited percentage of the people in Sangatte would prove to be refugees.

The UNHCR could help those who did not "return from where they have come", according to the commission's Simon Taylor.

But he added the commission was concerned Mr Blunkett's proposed Asylum Bill would mean genuine refugees lost the right of appeal in the UK.

"A very large proportion of cases are overturned on appeal and it is not right that people should be returned to their region of origin and then have to make an appeal from there," Mr Taylor told BBC News.

The Home Office, while welcoming the offer of assistance, played down Mr Lubbers' intervention, insisting that it was a matter to be resolved between the two governments.

"Any deal on Sangatte is a matter for the UK and the French," said a spokesman.

"The UNHCR isn't brokering a deal but we welcome their involvement."

There has been growing criticism in the UK of a perceived stalling by France to offer help with the problem.

'Long overdue'

Last month the Conservatives demanded to know why the UK was having to pay millions of pounds for security on the French side of the Channel Tunnel.

The criticism came as Mr Blunkett made "long overdue progress" with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on the issue.

However, while France outlined its commitment to close the Sangatte camp - it said it would set no timetable for that move.

Mr Blunkett is due to meet Mr Sarkozy again next week in Paris, to decide the future of Sangatte.

The intervention of the UNHCR could mean the pair avoid having to make concrete pledges.

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UNHCR spokesperson Rupert Colville
"The initial British reaction has been favourable"

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26 Jun 02 | UK Politics
25 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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