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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 02:57 GMT
Human traffickers targeting UK jailed
Illegal immigrants
It is thought hundreds were helped into Britain
A French court has handed down prison sentences of up to six years to 12 people who helped illegal immigrants enter Britain.

The court in Boulogne found that the defendants had operated a human trafficking ring from the controversial Red Cross refugee centre in Sangatte, near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

The ring was broken up by French police in July last year.

The court heard how they earned thousands of pounds by helping refugees from the centre stow away on boats, trains and lorries that were crossing the Channel.

Tunnel search

It is estimated that the traffickers, who come from Iraq, Algeria and Pakistan, may have helped several hundred people reach Britain.

They were given prison sentences of between four-and-half and six years, while two local taxi drivers who helped them will each serve shorter terms.

The convictions come at a time of renewed unease about the Red Cross centre, which has long been a base for people wishing to enter Britain illegally.

In the last major incident some 500 asylum seekers attempted to storm the tunnel entrance and cross into the UK on Christmas Day. About 150 were arrested inside the tunnel.

Overwhelmed French security staff called police in Kent who sealed off the English end of the tunnel. About 60 officers helped French police search the tunnel and round up the intruders.

Joint declaration

Hundreds of passengers had to be put up overnight in hotels in the UK and France as trains were stopped for 10 hours.

The French authorities are planning to convert a disused holiday camp in Cayeux-sur-Mer, which is only 20 miles from the Channel ports of Dieppe and Le Havre, into a second refugee centre for a trial period of five months.

The British Government supports the plan despite Home Secretary David Blunkett signing a joint declaration with French Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant in which France promised not to set up further camps to house those seeking to enter Britain illegally.

The government says the new centre does not breach the agreement.

See also:

26 Dec 01 | Scotland
New calls to close Sangatte
26 Dec 01 | Europe
Mass attempt to breach tunnel
22 Nov 01 | England
Call for troops to stop stowaways
13 Sep 01 | Europe
France denies second refugee camp
28 Dec 01 | Europe
Refugee camp boss 'must resign'
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