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Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 05:18 GMT 06:18 UK
Sangatte asylum talks due
Asylum seekers
Around 2,000 refugees are staying at Sangatte
UK Home Secretary David Blunkett is preparing to meet his French and Belgian counterparts to discuss ways to combat illegal immigrant activity.

Mr Blunkett is to inspect new security measures at the Frethun rail freight depot outside Calais.

Discussions are expected to include a possible closure date for the Red Cross Refugee Centre at Sangatte, which is a few miles from the Channel Tunnel entrance.

Critics claim it is used as a staging post for illegal immigrants to be smuggled onto cross-channel trains.

Together with his French counterpart, Nikolas Sarkozy, Mr Blunkett will inspect the new perimeter fence at the Frethun freight terminal.

The 5m double fence has helped reduce the numbers of asylum seekers reaching Britain on goods trains from around 250 a week to virtually none.

'Betrayal' fears

Mr Blunkett and Mr Sarkozy will also be shown new equipment and immigration controls at the port of Calais before travelling to Zeebrugge in Belgium to meet Belgian interior minister Antoine Duquesne.

The three ministers are expected to discuss what can be done to deter refugees from heading for other ports, including Zeebrugge, when Sangatte closes.

The meeting comes two months after Britain and France announced that the controversial Sangatte refugee camp would close.

What neither country has answered yet is exactly when the centre will shut and what will happen to the immigrants who remain there.

There are currently a record 2,000 in the centre, the majority of whom are Kurds from Iraq.

Rail freight operator EWS said on Wednesday that it feared talks between Mr Blunkett and his French counterpart could end in "ultimate betrayal".

24-hour policing

Rail freight company English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS) hopes that Thursday's meeting with French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy will secure a return to business as usual for the Channel Tunnel rail freight service by the end of this month.

Since November last year, EWS has only been able to run 40% of its normal services and 1,727 asylum seekers got off trains at the Dollands Moor yard at Folkestone in Kent.

The cost of the disruption is in excess of 10m.

Refugees at Sangatte
New security measures have helped at Sangatte
Following their meeting in June, the two politicians had said measures would be taken to restore a "full and reliable" service by September, EWS said.

The situation subsequently improved, with 50% of its services running.

However, the company said full day and night services could only be restored with 24-hour policing at the Calais-Frethun rail freight yard.

French police currently patrol between 2pm and 3am, leaving the yard without police for 11 hours every day, said an EWS spokesman.

He added: "This is D-day. Both ministers need to deliver 24-hour policing at the Frethun rail freight yard and if agreement cannot be reached then the commitment for a full and reliable freight service to be restored by September will have failed."

The BBC's Jon Sopel
"An x-ray machine for lorries will detect any human cargo"
Gordon Smith, EWS rail company
"The aura of self-congratulation around the visit is somewhat premature"

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See also:

12 Jul 02 | Politics
12 Jul 02 | Politics
11 Jul 02 | Politics
12 Jul 02 | England
17 May 02 | Europe
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