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 Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Fortress Europe's most notorious town
Refugee leaving Sangatte shelter
So near and yet so far for UK-bound refugees
Sangatte has hit the headlines as Europe's most controversial refugee camp. But that's only half the story. BBC News Online's chief feature writer Jonathan Duffy finds out how local residents are coping with the French town's newfound notoriety.

Even on a cloudy day, the White Cliffs of Dover are clearly visible from the beach at Sangatte.

Were it not for the waters of the English Channel, one could walk the distance in a few hours.

But the sea has always made Britain a tough nut to crack, as many of Sangatte's temporary residents will testify.

The Channel Tunnel entrance
Sangatte has become another flashpoint of Fortress Europe
By night, hundreds of asylum seekers based in the small town's refugee centre try their luck at crossing the Channel, somehow.

The vast majority fail and are returned to the camp, where they are free to have a go again the following night.

Meanwhile, the natives of Sangatte are adapting to life with their uninvited and increasingly unwelcome guests.

Sangatte grew up as a smart little resort town for the well-heeled folk of Pas de Calais. But most of the people pacing its main streets today seem at odds with the surroundings.

Standing out

The men are invariably young and of central Asian or Middle Eastern appearance - dark skins, black hair and moustaches.

Huddles of them crowd round a few public phone booths in the town. Some traipse to the general store and return with plastic bags full of bread rolls. Others just loiter.

We've taken to locking our doors and windows

Sangatte resident Marie-Catherine Toroval
For the moment at least, they are residents of the Sangatte shelter, which is run by the Red Cross - and currently the subject of some forthright politicking between the British and French governments.

The building started life as a warehouse during the building of the Channel Tunnel. Two years ago it was commandeered by the French authorities to house the growing number of Kosovan refugees arriving in Calais.

The town's people took well to their new neighbours who had been forced into exile by the ethnic strife in Serbia, said Marie-Catherine Toroval.

Welcome wanes

But the Kosovans left some time ago and in their place have come asylum seekers from elsewhere. In Sangatte, the tide of sympathy has turned.

"[The refugees] are quite detached from what is going on in the town. They are not aggressive, but we are on our guard," said Madame Toroval, who has formed a residents group that wants the shelter closed.

"We've taken to locking our doors and windows and we don't let our children out as much as we used to."

Refugees attempt to enter the Channel Tunnel
The nightly cat-and-mouse game at Sangatte
There are stories of trouble between refugees and locals, and some more harmless tales, like when one resident returned home to find a group of asylum seekers relaxing on his sofa.

Other incidents have involved the refugees fighting among themselves. Each evening, dozens gather to catch a bus to Calais (which is often a starting point to get to Britain) but scuffles have broken out as they clamber for the limited seats on board.

The current influx of refugees has more than doubled the size of Sangatte, which has a stable population of about 1,000. The shelter alone currently houses 1,600 people.

Losing business

The recent blaze of publicity is not good for business it seems. Trade is down about 10% at the Capotel hotel, says owner Renaud Vieillard.

"It could be much worse but word is getting round. I had one woman on the phone to make a booking - when she realised we were in Sangatte she just hung up."

At the town's grocery store, owner Monsieur Debever has seen his old customers lose out to the new arrivals.

Dover's White Cliffs
Not such a distant hope for refugees
"People used to come to the shop to buy good bread, but we have lost their custom. We do not have room in our shop [because] it is always full of refugees."

He now does a roaring trade in selling loo rolls and phone cards to the migrants, and he even acts as a bureau de change.

The people of Sangatte are finding it hard to come to terms with their new neighbours, but do they have any sympathy for the plight of these migrants?

Monsieur Vieillard gives an emphatic "Non" to the question, but Madame Torovel says as a parent it's impossible not to feel sorry for the families who have struggled this far.

But Sangatte, she says, is definitely the wrong choice for a refugee camp.

"There is a contradiction in the fact that every night the police return them here, to somewhere that is so close to Britain you can see it across the water".

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04 Sep 01 | UK
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