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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 19:36 GMT 20:36 UK
Immigrants caught in Channel Tunnel
Sangatte camp
The proximity of Sangatte camp to the tunnel terminal has caused controversy
Security at both ends of the Channel Tunnel has been tightened after 44 asylum seekers managed to walk through it for several miles.

Eurotunnel spokesman Francois Borel said the immigrants forced their way through a security fence and entered one of the main tunnels on Wednesday night, but were quickly detected by guards.
Channel Tunnel portal
The illegal immigrants walked seven miles into the tunnel

A team of police officers and Eurotunnel officials used the service tunnel to get ahead of the group, which had managed to walk seven miles.

In a separate incident, British coastguards picked up five would-be asylum seekers off the coast near Dover who had paddled from France in an inflatable dinghy.

Eurotunnel is again calling for the closure of an immigration centre near to its French terminal, because it says illegal immigrants are targeting its services.

And port officials are reporting an increasing number of risky attempts by would-be asylum seekers to reach Britain by sea due to stepped up security around the tunnel.

Services disrupted

The incident in the Channel Tunnel brought passenger and freight services to a halt for several hours overnight, although no passengers were left stranded in the tunnel.

Mr Borel said: "Nearly 300 people were detained during the night at the entrance of the tunnel but this was the first time that a group of them was found inside.

"Traffic was interrupted for several hours as a security precaution but this translated into a loss in business for Eurotunnel."


We are a private transport company, not a frontier control point

Eurotunnel
He said that the 44 immigrants had all been taken back to the Red Cross refugee centre in Sangatte, near the tunnel entrance on the French side.

They were being questioned by immigration officials and police.

Eurotunnel has repeatedly called for the centre - which holds about 1,200 immigrants - to be shut down on the grounds it was being used by people as a base to try to enter Britain illegally.

The tunnel operator, which took the matter before the French courts last week, said that constant attempts by immigrants to stowaway on its trains were disrupting services and causing the company to lose large amounts of revenue.

'Frustrating'

The company is also contesting plans by the UK Government to impose a 2,000 fine for every illegal immigrant found on Eurotunnel services.

Eurotunnel maintains that hundreds of illegal immigrants are intercepted every night at the French terminal.

It said on Thursday that it would further increase the number of security guards patrolling the tunnel.


We see no reason why Eurotunnel should be treated any differently to anyone else

Home Office
But Eurotunnel spokeswoman, Camille Newall, added: "What is so frustrating is that we are a private transport company, not a frontier control point."

"We are spending more and more money on security yet the [UK] government, who will not contribute, is simply threatening us with fines."

A Home Office spokeswoman said that airlines, ferry operators, road hauliers and other freight train operators were all liable for penalties "if they don't take responsibility for putting in place effective measures to prevent people travelling to the UK illegally".

"We see no reason why Eurotunnel should be treated any differently to anyone else."

She added that the Home Office was "already doing everything we can to help Eurotunnel", including providing immigration officers to work alongside the company's Calais terminal carrying out checks for would-be asylum seekers.

Dinghy attempt

The five men picked up in British waters on Thursday had been paddling for about 20 hours when their dinghy, which did not have an engine, was spotted by fishermen.

The men - who are believed to be Russian or eastern European - were rescued by a lifeboat from the nearby port of Dover.

Coastguards said they were suffering from hypothermia and were "lucky to be alive".

They have been handed over to the police and immigration officials.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The issue is likely to be decided in the courts"
See also:

21 Aug 01 | Europe
Chunnel row over refugee camp
22 Mar 01 | UK
Desperate cargo
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