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Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 13:46 GMT
France's asylum crisis
Refugees inside the church
Refugees discuss their situation inside the church

Huddled together in the pews of this modern day church are rows of fighters in a battle of wills.

Sangatte may have closed its doors to them but these asylum-seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and other points east, are as determined as those who came before them to reach Britain.

I was made aware of this by a figure who approached me outside the church and made me an offer that I could and did refuse.

"My brother, my sister - England. I am no England - can you help me? My brother give you money," he appealed.

I wanted to be sure I understood him correctly. "So if I help you get to England, you'll give me money?" I asked him.

"Yes, yes. Only Dover - Dover down, I am down Dover - you go into London. I have money," he assured me.

Carrots and sticks

Officials from refugee support groups are hoping to seize this moment to convince the immigrants both inside and outside the church that they should see France as the promised land.

But neither the stick of tough new British asylum laws nor the carrot of temporary French housing seems to have persuaded many to take the bait and apply for asylum here.

After years of hearing the opposite message from the French authorities, it is perhaps little wonder that the refugees see this latest approach as that of a country crying wolf.

"Germany, Austria or other country - their government help us is very, very good. But now in France - no," he explained in broken English.

But an aide worker near by remonstrates. "No, you're wrong," he says. "Belgium, Germany and Italy, they just want to expel you."

But these words fall on deaf ears.

"No. Their government help is very good," the asylum seeker replied - emphasizing the contrast with the treatment received by those inside the church.

Offers of help

In a side street, I bumped into two Calais residents - Rosalie and Sophie de Treyer.

They were stuffing plastic bags full of clothes into the boot of their car. Both looked despondent.

"They don't want us to give clothes to people," they explain.

"So you've come here to donate clothes and you're taking them away?" I asked. Yes, comes the response.

I ask why the authorities are preventing such gifts.

"Because they want to stop help for refugees - to discourage them from coming," Rosalie explained. "I'm surprised - surprised and angry too."

But this is an important test case, and the mixed message of offering sanctuary under the gaze of riot police may be intended less for the refugees inside the church than for the hundreds, if not thousands, who might be tempted to follow in their footsteps.

That they are out there is in little doubt - that France knows how to deal with them in this post-Sangatte era, for the time being at least, is.


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