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Saturday, 30 November, 2002, 12:19 GMT
Sangatte's enduring appeal
Asylum seekers making for the entrance to the Channel Tunnel
Nightly ritual: The attempt to break into the port area

The issue of Sangatte, the controversial Red Cross reception centre near the port of Calais in Northern France, is far from resolved, ahead of a meeting on Monday between French and British interior ministers.

Under a deal reached this summer the French Government agreed to close Sangatte in exchange for London enacting tougher asylum legislation designed to make the UK less attractive to asylum seekers.

The centre has long been used as a springboard for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the UK.

The British legislation has already been passed; and earlier this month Sangatte was closed to new entrants.

Outside the Sangatte centre, I had this exchange.

"Are you going to England now?" I was asked by an eager young man. "Do you have a car?"

When I replied that we were travelling by taxi, he lost interest, melting back into the group milling around outside the high wire perimeter fence in the gathering darkness.

Nightly ritual

It was 1720 on a dark, windy late November evening.

Many of Sangatte's inhabitants were gearing up for what's become a nightly ritual - heading off to the port of Calais five kilometres away.

Channel Tunnel entrance
The heavily protected tunnel entrance is often a target for asylum seekers
I watched them as they trudged off into the night. Many of them were young men of Middle Eastern appearance.

Most of Sangatte's residents are intent on crossing the English Channel illegally by sneaking onto lorries, ferries or trains.

This was also the case when I first visited two years ago. What's different is the numbers involved now that Sangatte's fame has spread.

I asked one of the residents, a Palestinian called Ahmed, how he'd heard about it.

He laughed uproariously. "Everyone in the world has heard of Sangatte."

Ahmed had been sent there by smugglers. He'd paid them about $7,000 to get this far.

But now he'd run out of money and was trying to get to England and then on to Canada under his own steam.

"It has got harder recently," he said. "Security has been stepped up."

So how many times had he tried?

About 20, he told me. Once he was caught in the boot of a car. But we will cross, he giggled, even if we have to swim.

Home to thousands

Sangatte is home to almost 2,000 people from more than 40 different countries.

Nowadays, the huge echoing warehouse has rows of beds set out in the open alongside the original temporary buildings and tents.

It now boasts a mosque and makeshift food stalls. An Iraqi barber plies his trade in a corner.

Electrified fence
Many asylum seekers have died on the electrified fences
Its inhabitants pass the hours chatting, playing football and listening to Middle Eastern music on battered tape machines with failing batteries.

A young African boy sleeps on his bed in a cabin, surrounded by a family of talkative Afghans. His Mickey Mouse toy sits jauntily beside him on his pillow.

Facilities are extremely basic. There are just 14 showers and it takes more than an hour to queue for a meal.

The inhabitants complain of dirt, of mice, of the bitter cold. But it's somewhere to lay their heads in between their trips to the port.


I was told not to speak English in the centre itself. With Sangatte due to close people are jumpy and anxious to know about their fate.

I was told that a visiting group of British students had been besieged by hundreds of people wanting to lodge asylum claims. They'd been mistaken for British government officials.

Sangatte refugee centre
Sangatte is closed to new arrivals, but refugees continue to come
We were told that we were the first British journalists to be allowed in for a long time.

But we were able to talk quietly with people outside the main warehouse.

The majority of them told tales of persecution - perhaps not surprisingly, given that the people smugglers coach their clients on what to say to gain asylum.

They said they'd fled conscription in Sudan, they were persecuted for their political views in Iran or Afghanistan, they were deserters from the Iraqi army, or Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein.

Only a few admitted to being economic migrants, in search of a job, a house, a better education.

Myth and reality

The misconceptions are huge. An Iraqi Kurd told me confidently that England - and only England - is open to all Iraqi refugees, citing the British Government's strong opposition to President Saddam Hussein.

Others appeared to believe - incorrectly - that you couldn't claim political asylum in France.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says such stories are often sown by the smugglers, who get paid more the further people travel.

Local charities have been helping to feed the asylum seekers
Local charities have been helping to feed the asylum seekers
UNHCR recently started work in Sangatte, registering people and helping them unpick myth from reality.

Some people have now started applying for asylum in France, but most are biding their time.

As for the repatriation grant being offered to Afghans, an Afghan teacher told us scathingly that this would only cover a fraction of the money he'd spent being smuggled this far.

Others are waiting to see what happens when the centre finally closes; hoping that somehow they'll be taken in by Britain, long regarded as having a more generous asylum system.

Great risks

But many are not willing to wait. They continue to set out at night.

They're risking a lot. Some have died trying to jump trains or scale electric fences.

Those who are caught trying are brought back to Sangatte by the Calais police, and are free to try again.

In the past week more than 100 people have left Sangatte.

No-one knows if they've made it to Britain, or have simply moved along the coast to other ports where security is less tight.

I wonder if the young man who asked me for a lift was one of them.

Meanwhile others are still coming.

Refused entry to Sangatte, they're sleeping rough in the woods or old air raid shelters, being fed by local charities.

Do people setting out know the conditions they'll face?

One young man called Reza told us that he'd been stranded in Sangatte for four months.

He said he'd left Iran because he had no choice. But the experience had left him psychologically shattered.

"I want to tell other young people, if you don't really have a serious problem, coming here is just not worth it," he said.

Key stories



See also:

13 Nov 02 | Europe
12 Nov 02 | Europe
23 Oct 02 | Europe
29 Jul 02 | Europe
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