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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 12:24 GMT
Tory asylum attack backfires
Asylum seekers caught by french police at Calais
Asylum seekers caught by french police at Calais
A claim by a leading Conservative that illegal immigration is "out of control" appears to have backfired - after he used the wrong figures to support his case.

Former home secretary Michael Howard claimed 1,082 asylum seekers were found at the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone in the first 12 days of this month.

Michael Howard
Michael Howard -- wrong figures
He said this showed the government was failing to curb entry of migrants into the UK.

Eurotunnel confirmed the number - but insisted it referred to people who had been stopped from entering Britain at the French terminal near Calais.

Mr Howard, whose Folkestone and Hythe constituency includes the UK terminal, told the BBC that more immigrants had been apprehended there in the first 12 days of March than the whole of last year.

"I am very much afraid that the situation is out of control and once more people realise it is out of control, more and more people will try to enter this country illegally."

Razor wire

But a Eurotunnel spokesman told BBC News Online that the figure of 1,082 related to the French terminal at Coquelles which has a 2m security operation.

"This demonstrates that the security is working and we are keeping people in France," he said.

"Mr Howard was on a fact-finding mission and there has clearly been some confusion about numbers."

He said 150 people were found at Coquelles every night and returned to the Red Cross centre at Sangatte - which meant 50,000 people a year were prevented from travelling to the UK every year.

The 22 miles of razor wire around the Coquelles compound is patrolled by dogs and security guards.

A group of asylum seekers in the UK
Many asylum seekers do get through to the UK
Cars and lorries en route for the UK can be searched with carbon dioxide detectors to point to anyone hidden inside vehicles.

But once shuttle trains arrive at Folkestone, passengers can drive straight to the motorway unimpeded.

Mr Howard told BBC News Online he now acknowledged that he had been given the wrong figures, but the situation at Folkstone remained serious.

He said 190 illegal immigrants had been apprehended on the British side of the tunnel in March - compared with 432 in the whole of last year.

Security improved

Home Office minister Barbara Roche praised Eurotunnel for its improved security in France.

"People have been breaching the perimeter fence," she said.

"Of course that's dangerous for them but it is also dangerous for the passengers and staff of Eurotunnel."

New penalties on rail companies, which fail to stop stowaways on board freight wagons, should help stem the flow of migrants breaking into the terminal, she added.

Three weeks ago, nine people were discovered hidden under a Eurostar train when it arrived in London after a three-hour journey from Paris through the Channel Tunnel.

Immigration is likely to be a significant issue in the coming general election, with both parties wanting to be seen as tough on illegal entry into the UK.

Last year more than 76,000 people asked for asylum after coming to the UK - a record number.

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