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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 12:45 GMT
Church refugees face showdown
French police and demonstrators
France will not let the refugees go to the Sangatte camp
A group of asylum seekers in the northern French port of Calais are waiting to see whether the authorities carry out a threat to expel them from a church they have been occupying.

The migrants were given 24 hours to leave on Tuesday morning.

Between 70 and 100 refugees, mainly Kurds from northern Iraq, are refusing to move unless they can stay in the Calais area, and ultimately attempt to gain asylum in Britain.

I have nothing left if it's not the dream of being able to live in England

Unnamed Iraqi refugee
They say that in Britain their applications are more likely to succeed quickly than in France, and that many of them have relatives there.

The French authorities want to process their asylum claims elsewhere in France, to try to stem the flow of illegal migrants across the English Channel to Britain.

They have been told that they will receive a "safe conduct pass" if they leave the church, giving them the right to stay in France for five days.

The French Government has ruled out acceding to the migrants' main demand, which is to be admitted to the nearby Sangatte Red Cross camp.

The camp, which is seen as the penultimate stop for asylum seekers wanting to get to Britain through the Channel Tunnel, was recently forced to shut its doors to new arrivals after immense pressure from the British Government.

No thanks

French authorities have set and re-set deadlines for the migrants to leave the church, which had been offered for temporary use by the town's communist mayor Jacky Henin.

But officials have seemed very reluctant to order a forced evacuation.

Calais residents bring bread to the church
Sympathetic locals have brought supplies to the migrants

The last right-wing government experienced a public relations disaster when it sent police to break up the lengthy occupation of a church by illegal immigrants in Paris six years ago.

But after a meeting with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday, Mr Henin said they had agreed that the situation must be resolved within 24 hours.

"The state has made a commitment that after 24 hours it will assume its responsibilities," Mr Henin said, in what is being interpreted as a sign that a forced eviction will be carried out.

Prior to the new deal, French officials had been offering to transport the immigrants to centres in other areas of France where their asylum claims would be processed.

About 30 of the asylum seekers accepted this first offer and left on Monday, but the 70 remaining appear to have little desire to stay in France.

Officials say they have greeted the fresh offer with scepticism.

Living on streets

Many have paid large sums of money to flee such trouble spots as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, and made long, dangerous journeys hiding on trucks and in containers.

Until Sangatte opened, they had been sleeping rough on beaches and in parks.

Opponents of the camp's closure argued that people would go back to the streets if the centre was shut down, which has proved to be the case.

After three years, the Sangatte centre is set to close for good in April, following an agreement between France and Britain aimed at clamping down on illegal immigration.

The BBC's Janet Barrie
"Neither side is budging"

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12 Nov 02 | Europe
13 Nov 02 | Europe
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