FRANCE: The French Interior Minister, Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, and his British counterpart, Mr David Blunkett, yesterday announced that the refugee centre at Sangatte, near Calais, will close on December 30th, three months earlier than expected.
The agreement resolves a major difficulty in Franco-British relations, but is unlikely to stop the flow of Kurdish, Afghan, Sudanese, Iranian and Romanian refugees trying to cross the English Channel.
Under the accord, Britain will accept 70 per cent of the 1,589 refugees currently registered at Sangatte, including all Kurdish and Arab Iraqis and Afghans with relatives in Britain. In anticipation of yesterday's announcement, 12 refugees left Sangatte for Britain on November 29th, and another 50 are due to travel today. Civil servants from the Home Office began arriving at Sangatte yesterday to begin processing the transfers.
The deal seems to have satisfied both sides. Mr Blunkett welcomed the closure of what he called "a festering sore" in Anglo-French relations. Mr Sarkozy boasted to Le Monde that the accord was "unhoped for".
Mr Blunkett said the deal was "a major achievement" and that the resulting new security regime "effectively pushes our \ border controls across the Channel to the French coast."
However, the Conservative spokesman, Mr Oliver Letwin, said the closure of the camp was treating a symptom rather than the cause of a "growing asylum disaster". Though welcome, the closure would have little effect on the overall problem, he said.
The Liberal Democrats said the deal should do nothing to prevent those with a genuine claim for asylum being able to put their case. "All countries have a duty to ensure that those who will inevitably come to northern Europe have their claims considered fairly," said spokesman Mr Simon Hughes.
Sangatte was closed to newcomers on November 5th. Mr Sarkozy said new arrivals in Calais had dropped from 400 to 10 a day since then.
"We are solving the problem with humanity," he stressed. "I repeat that we're not talking about packages of merchandise; we're talking about human beings. We are ending a magnet for clandestine immigration from all over the world, a symbol of permissiveness."
"Sangatte will no longer be the focal point," said Ms Sylvia Zappi of Le Monde, who has reported on the centre since its inception. "The refugees will spread along the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts." Seven hundred riot police and gendarmes patrol Calais, to prevent refugees from settling there while they attempt to cross the Channel.
Eurotunnel owns the huge warehouse that was turned into a refugee centre in 1999, to absorb an influx of Kosovan Albanians fleeing Serb forces. The company said yesterday it will destroy the building when the refugees leave.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has run Sangatte with great difficulty. Traffickers took advantage of the concentration to extort money from refugees. Several people have been killed in fights between Kurds and Afghans inside the camp. The centre became infamous in Britain in the summer of 2001, when crowds of refugees repeatedly stormed trains entering the Channel Tunnel.
Britain wanted Sangatte closed by December 18th, but Mr Sarkozy obtained an extra two weeks to enable the UNHCR to complete interviews. Mr Sarkozy also insisted that 4,900 people who received badges be given until mid-day tomorrow to return to the centre and participate in the process. The majority of the badges have expired because their holders failed to report to the centre every three days.
French authorities and the UNHCR persuaded London to accept all the Iraqis, not just Kurds. And they prevailed in imposing a broad definition of "family ties" - to include cousins as well as immediate relatives - for the Afghans.
The refugees accepted by Britain will be given four-year work permits. More than 100,000 new immigrants have reached Britain this year, the highest number in Europe. Paris has agreed, exceptionally, to give work permits to the 400 Sangatte refugees who will remain in France.