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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 12:34 GMT
Sangatte: Are there any winners?
A refugee uses a phone at Sangatte
One of the last Sangatte residents

So with Sangatte closing - who wins?

The refugee camp on the northern tip of France had become the running sore of the row over asylum seekers in the UK. But will its closure make any difference?

Ministers say Sangatte's closure is a cornerstone of an asylum policy which will cut the number of arrivals.

Sangatte has been a magnet and it has allowed criminal gangs to persuade people that this was a route in

Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes
With the "magnet" of Sangatte gone, they reason, the numbers will fall as the French and British authorities tackle the people smuggling operations which have used Sangatte as a staging post to Dover.

Beverley Hughes, the Home Office's immigration minister describes Sangatte's closure as "not a sustainable solution, but part of an important package of measures" to bear down on false applicants and the smuggling operation.

"The decisive action we have taken means stronger border security arrangements along the north European Coast and the closure of Sangatte will mean we can prevent illegal immigrants getting to Britain in the first place."

Joined-up policy?

She and Home Secretary David Blunkett hope this closure, recent legislation and more co-operation with the French will be the first steps towards a joined-up European Union immigration policy.

An asylum seeker who sought refuge in a church
Calais: Asylum seekers sought refuge in church
Part of the problem, as the government sees it, is almost all these asylum seekers pass through safe European countries before reaching Calais.

Occasionally some make asylum applications on the way.

The UN refugee agency recently discovered one man in Sangatte who had applied for asylum in Austria but left not knowing he had been accepted. He was apparently happy to head back to Vienna.

So, closing Sangatte, figure ministers, will encourage the French and other nations to take more responsibility for asylum seekers rather than let them all head for Britain. A problem shared is a problem halved.

But will that be the case at all?

Earlier this year the French Red Cross, the body which opened Sangatte at the behest of the French Government, predicted that its closure would do nothing to stop the movements towards Britain.

The Red Cross argued Sangatte was not the cause of the problem but a response to it. Many asylum seekers believe the UK will welcome them with a civilised reception.

Closing Sangatte would only lead to asylum seekers using more cities and towns across northern France as a staging post before crossing the English Channel, it warned.

People smuggling

Evidence suggested many of the asylum seekers did not actually have a choice of destination, said the French Red Cross.

People smugglers running asylum rackets were responsible for transit into northern France, at which point many individuals decided they would be better off going all the way into the UK.

If this were to be the case, argue the government's critics among the refugee agencies, nobody wins: The French would be picking up destitute asylum seekers left, right and centre; the UK would be forced to turn all the south coast ports into fortresses and asylum seekers would still be in hock to unscrupulous and violent organised criminal gangs.

Warning to EU

Furthermore, a detailed report from the House of Lords warns the asylum issue will only be solved if nations open up borders to more legal migration to fill gaps in the labour market.

"Illegal [organised] immigration poses a serious problem to almost all the member states and the EU as a whole," said the November report.

"Despite its possibly positive economic effects, illegal immigration cannot be viewed with equanimity ... [it] undermines the whole structure of legal migration and places increasing strain on a country's social acceptance of immigrants."

Smashing the smugglers

Today, the authorities say they are smashing the people-smuggling operations - but still they arrive in northern France.

Nothing is going to change until there's a properly harmonised policy across Europe

Keith Best, Immigration Advisory Service
Less than a month ago we saw an example of this when 100 asylum seekers sought refuge in a church in Calais in protest at not being allowed into Sangatte.

Ministers hope this incident will be the last cough and spit of a chaotic situation. But it was these kinds of incidents which led to the opening of Sangatte in the first place.

But the fact remains that the UK remains the destination of choice - with record arrivals in the last quarter.

And it was the problem of sheltering these levels of asylum seekers three years ago which forced the French to open Sangatte in the first place.

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigation Advisory Service, warned that we should not be surprised if we see another Sangatte eventually opening elsewhere.

"The people will keep coming and do you really think the mayor of Calais and [interior minister] Nicholas Sarkozy will let huge numbers sleep rough on their streets?

"All it means is they will eventually have to say to the Home Secretary, 'Sorry Mr Blunkett, we're going to have to reopen'. Although this time it may be elsewhere in Normandy and we will see the same thing all over again.

"Nothing is going to change until there's a properly harmonised policy across Europe."

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