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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 13:43 GMT
Sangatte's controversial history

By Jon Sopel
BBC correspondent in Paris

By the end of December, Sangatte will be no more. Of course, Sangatte the small seaside town near Calais will continue - it's just the building which has given it unwanted worldwide fame that will cease to be.

A one-time anonymous hangar for storing drilling equipment when the Channel Tunnel was under construction, the Sangatte refugee camp has for three years been a magnet for the dispossessed and desperate from the world's trouble spots who believe that Britain is the promised land.

Just as the world has changed in three years, so has the population at Sangatte.

David Blunkett (L) and Nicolas Sarkozy (R)
Britain's David Blunkett and France's Nicolas Sarkozy faced a difficult compromise

The centre was initially handed over to the Red Cross to offer shelter to those people, mainly families, fleeing the Balkans.

That population was supplanted by people fleeing Afghanistan - and now the population is mainly young men, predominately Iraqi Kurds.

Come the beginning of next year when the centre is closed, you can be sure that Eurotunnel will seek to flatten it.

For Eurotunnel, it has been a nightmare. Every evening hundreds of illegal immigrants would fan out from Sangatte, walk the short walk to the tunnel entrance and then try to breach security - risking life and limb by trying to jump on to slow-moving trains.

Those who failed were then arrested by the police and returned to Sangatte, where they would be cared for by the Red Cross, only to try the same thing the following night and the night after that until eventually they succeeded.

Political breakthrough

It was a problem without solution. The French blamed the British and the British blamed the French.

Refugees stand by the entrance to the Red Cross centre in Sangatte
Some 1,200 refugees are coming to the UK under a new deal

All the while there was political stalemate, the smuggling gangs who brought these people to Sangatte grew rich.

But credit where credit is due. Nicolas Sarkozy, who became France's interior minister in the summer, and David Blunkett, Britain's home secretary, have made progress that no-one thought was possible.

Political co-operation has changed the landscape.

Undoubtedly, many of those who passed through Sangatte were escaping tyranny and fleeing persecution.

But many others are simply economic migrants looking for a better life in the West.

With the deal agreed between the two governments earlier this week, some 1,200 Iraqis and Afghans will come to Britain and be given work permits to achieve their goal.

But those who are left behind still face an uncertain future. They are being told they have to apply for asylum in France - going to Britain is no longer an option.

What will happen to these people will be the real test of the British Government's tough new stance on dealing with the wave of illegal immigrants that have been arriving in Europe in so many numbers over the past few years.

Sangatte refugees head for UK
05 Dec 02  |  UK News
Sangatte: Are there any winners?
05 Dec 02  |  UK News
Head to head: Closing Sangatte
02 Dec 02  |  UK News
'Abused' asylum loophole scrapped
29 Nov 02  |  Politics
Sangatte's enduring appeal
30 Nov 02  |  From Our Own Correspondent

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