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Saturday, 29 December, 2001, 01:09 GMT
Ministers back new refugee camp
French police watch asylum seekers at Channel Tunnel
More riot police have been drafted in for the New Year
The British Government has said it supports the French decision to allow a second refugee camp to open in northern France.

The new centre is designed to relieve pressure on the controversial Sangatte camp near the Channel Tunnel - where asylum seekers have repeatedly breached security.

The move comes as British MPs called for the resignation of Michel Meriaux, deputy director of the French Red Cross refugee camp at Sangatte, after some 500 asylum seekers attempted to storm the Channel Tunnel entrance and cross illegally to the UK.

Despite the incident and calls by Eurotunnel for the camp to be closed, Home Office minister Angela Eagle said there was no danger of the proposed camp becoming a second Sangatte, because it was some distance from the nearest Channel port.

French co-operation

In September this year Home Secretary David Blunkett signed a joint declaration with French Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant in which France promised not to set up further camps to house those seeking to enter Britain illegally.

Ms Eagle said that the scheme to convert a disused holiday camp in Cayeux-sur-Mer into a refugee centre for a trial period of five months would not breach this agreement, even though the site is only 20 miles from the Channel ports of Dieppe and Le Havre.

She told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "Clearly, the location of the new camp, some 60 miles away from the Channel Tunnel, isn't a breaking of the agreement made between the Home Secretary and his counterpart when they met in September.

"It is important not to mix these things up. As far as we are concerned, that agreement is still being held to."

Four jailed

Ms Eagle said the government was "pleased" with the co-operation shown by French police and immigration authorities at the time of the Christmas Day attempt to breach the tunnel's defences.

Recent tunnel breaches
25 Dec: 150 caught inside tunnel; 400 trying to get in
6 Nov: 74 found hiding on trains in Dover
30 Oct: 154 arrested in Calais freight terminal
2 Sep: 100 caught in Coquelles compound
31 Aug: 80 caught in Coquelles compound
30 Aug: 44 held after walking miles into tunnel

In fast-track legal proceedings on Friday, a French court jailed three Kurdish Iraqis and an Afghan for four months and ordered them to pay two million francs (195,000) to Eurotunnel for tearing down security fences at the tunnel entrance.

All four denied the accusations against them. Some 39 others are to face trial in the coming weeks.

Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard - whose Folkestone and Hythe constituency includes the tunnel mouth - said that Britain needed to revive an agreement with France that all asylum-seekers arriving from across the Channel should be sent back.

He told World at One: "These people are in France, they are not going to be persecuted in France, their claims should be dealt with in France."

Ms Eagle said that the European Union was currently updating the Dublin Convention to make it clearer which country has responsibility for dealing with individual asylum claims.

No knowledge

But she said that more work needed to be done with the countries from which economic migrants are arriving, in order to make it more attractive for them to stay at home.

Meanwhile, Mr Meriaux denied knowing in advance that asylum seekers from his camp were going to attempt to enter the tunnel and said it was not up to him to warn the authorities.

Police used tear gas to disperse the asylum seekers after they breached security at the tunnel entrance.

Eurotunnel has drafted in 500 extra French riot police for the New Year period, amid concerns that there will be a further attempt to storm the barriers.

Former UK shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said Mr Meriaux's position was "untenable".

The BBC's Nick Thatcher
"It could well happen again on New Year's Eve"
Sangatte camp deputy director Michel Meriaux
"I am only concerned with what happens in the camp - we are not running a detention centre"
See also:

26 Dec 01 | Europe
New calls to close Sangatte
22 Nov 01 | England
Call for troops to stop stowaways
15 Nov 01 | UK Politics
UK could join refugee quota scheme
29 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Asylum seekers to get ID cards
13 Sep 01 | Europe
France denies second refugee camp
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