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France/Britain: Officials Announce Plans To Close Controversial Migrant Center

By Sarah Martin

France and Britain have announced plans to close the French Red Cross center for migrants at Sangatte in northern France by the end of this month. The closure will remove a constant irritant in Franco-British relations. Sangatte, over the past four years, has attracted thousands of immigrants trying to travel illegally to Britain through the Channel Tunnel. And while it is still unclear how the new migrants who arrive daily on the northern French coast will be handled, asylum and refugee aid workers say the camp's closure of Sangatte can only be viewed as a victory.

Paris, 9 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- France and Britain have announced plans to close a controversial migrant center in northern France by the end of this month, eliminating what until now has been a thorn in the side of bilateral relations.

As part of the plan to close the Sangatte Red Cross camp, Britain will take in about 1,000 Iraqi Kurds and about 200 Afghans. France will take responsibility for the roughly 300 remaining residents of the camp.

Sangatte was originally set up in 1999 to accommodate those fleeing the Kosovo crisis. But it increasingly became a dumping ground for the victims of human traffickers, attracting migrants from as far away as Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Britain had long demanded closing the facility, which frequently served as a staging ground for illegal runs to Britain through the Channel Tunnel.

Corinne Perthuis, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), works with the refugees and asylum claimants at Sangatte. She told RFE/RL she welcomes the closure. "You have 50 nationalities in the same storage, and you have rats and you have very poor conditions. They are twice miserable. They are miserable because they have been fleeing their country because of persecutions, they are then in the hands of smugglers who are making a lot of money, and then there are no solutions to be welcome in Europe. So that's a problem we are facing. And we don't want to see many Sangattes. I think that after Sangatte we hope that we'll never have another Sangatte in Europe," Perthuis said.

She pointed out that the camp only served to harm the rights and interests of legitimate asylum seekers, by lumping both legal and illegal migrants together in one spot. "To keep Sangatte as it was for three years, it was eroding asylum rights. And it could have been the end of asylum in Europe. So now, the UNHCR wants to clarify the debate to see who are the people in need of protection. If every illegal migrant can stay and settle down for three years in France or in Great Britain, there is no reason why UNHCR has to devote a lot of energy to make a difference between economic migrants and a refugee persecuted in his own country," Perthuis said.

This is the heart of the problem. It's not easy to distinguish between people who are legitimately fleeing political persecution from those looking for a better economic situation. Economic migrants and asylum seekers alike typically arrive without any means of identification.

Kamuran ji Kikan runs the judicial and human rights department of the Kurd Institute in Paris. He said the main problem with Sangatte is that is was a depot for migrants in limbo. He said it did nothing to aid the people most in need, as asylum seekers almost never know their legal rights. "Personally, I think the problem with Sangatte is that it is a 'no-law' zone. The people concerned don't refer to the Geneva convention, as they don't demand political asylum. They don't ask for political protection. Then, all together, the French legal dispositions, national laws, as well as the international laws of the UNHCR are placed in a state of suspension. If a person does not ask for protection, we cannot oblige them to be protected. All the difficulty comes from the fact that these people don't want political asylum in France, in Germany, or in Italy. It's not just France. We talk about France because it is at the end of the line, the last step before arriving in England," ji Kikan said.

Asylum seekers have long looked to Britain as a haven because of that country's relatively lenient policies. But Britain, under increasing domestic pressure, has moved recently to tighten its laws.

Ji Kikan said trying to change Britain's image as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow cannot happen overnight.

Critics say they fear that closing Sangatte, however, will not solve the problem of what to do with the migrants, who are still approaching the camp at a rate of 40 a day. The UNHCR is working with the Red Cross and French authorities to register all the immigrants currently staying in Sangatte. They are being given identity badges and are filling in questionnaires designed to help determine where they are from and the legitimacy of their asylum claims.

Most of the 2,000 or so immigrants in Sangatte claim to be either Afghans or Iraqi Kurds. But officials suspect that at least some of them are not telling the truth. Iraqi Kurds are one group that cannot be repatriated.

At the beginning of January, the camp will be handed back to its owners, Eurotunnel, the company that operates the nearby tunnel between Britain and France.