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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Europe's most notorious refugee camp
Refugees at the Channel Tunnel
Refugees are caught at the tunnel on a daily basis
The Sangatte refugee camp in France will be shut down by March next year, it has been announced. BBC News online looks at the history of the controversial centre.

Opened less than three years ago, Sangatte has attracted fierce debate on both sides of the Channel.

Run by the French Red Cross, the camp started life as a warehouse storing equipment during the building of the Channel Tunnel.

Once the job was completed, the grey unassuming building on the edge of the small town of Sangatte was abandoned until September 1999.

Then it was commandeered by the French authorities to tackle the growing number of Kosovan refugees arriving at the nearby port of Calais.

Sangatte refugee camp
The former warehouse holds up to 1,500 refugees at a time
Forced from their homes by the conflict in the Balkans, they were welcomed by the sympathetic locals.

But they left a while ago, many returning home, and their place has been taken by others fleeing regimes much further afield - Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq.

The Red Cross says its role at the camp is simple: to offer shelter and food to people who would otherwise be homeless.

Before the camp opened, the refugees were sleeping rough in Calais' parks and beaches.

Many, the charity says, have travelled thousands of miles to get to this small corner of Europe and have little more than the clothes they stand up in.

Angry clashes

The problem for the authorities is that the refugees do not stay quietly out of sight in the camp.

Local French shopkeepers dislike them hanging around their neat town.

They claim the refugees spend little money but also discourage tourists from stopping and spending.

It is also severely over-crowded. The camp holds around 1,200 people but was built for less than 700.


It is our job to meet the needs of people caught up in refugee crises, not to judge them

Red Cross
Last November, 29 people were injured in clashes between Afghan and Kurdish refugees when frustrations boiled over.

Friction between the British and French Governments has been just as hot, with both under pressure to close the camp.

Every day, refugees are seen boarding buses for Calais and from there make a dash for Britain on board the trains which thunder back and forth through the tunnel.

Eurotunnel, the operator of the rail link, asked the French courts to shut down the centre.

The freight train operators said they were losing 15m every three months through trains being delayed by people hiding in the tunnel.

Tightened security

Eurotunnel said it prevented more than 18,500 illegal immigrants from reaching Britain in the first six months of 2001 alone.

Refugees were caught in or around the tunnel, on almost a daily basis.

There were repeated calls for tightened security around the tunnel mouth and increasingly for the camp to be shut down.

In December, British MPs called for the camp's deputy director Michel Meriaux to resign after hundreds of asylum seekers tried to storm the tunnel on Boxing Day.

Channel Tunnel entrance
Refugees target the Channel Tunnel

In January this year it appeared the refugees were getting more sophisticated, when a gang of Romanians was arrested for tampering with railway signals to stop trains to allow people to climb aboard.

In April an Iraqi Kurd was stabbed to death in a fight with other Kurds.

In May rioting again broke out at the camp, after an announcement that security was being stepped up on the French side.

The Red Cross came under pressure to withdraw from the camp.

In an editorial on 17 May, the British Daily Mail urged its readers to stop donating to the charity.

Sir Nicholas Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, called the move "unjustified and intolerable".

The charity pointed out that the camp is funded entirely by the French government and decisions about its running and future lie there.

"Asylum policy is a matter for governments, not the Red Cross," said Sir Nicholas.

"It is our job to meet the needs of people caught up in refugee crises, not to judge them."

Despite the announcement that the centre will close by March 2003, the problem still remains what to do with the thousands of refugees who are drawn to Calais and the Channel Tunnel.


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04 Sep 01 | UK
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