Tue, 04 Sep 2001

Eurotunnel, refugees last hope to reach UK

By Jon Henley

SANGATTE, France: Maybe it is the end of the summer that fills them with such sudden desperation, the thought of bitter winter nights spent dodging security patrols, hanging from bridges, wriggling through razor wire fences, squatting in ditches in the rain.

Maybe it is because there are many more trains at this time of year, so perhaps there is a better chance of jumping on one. Or maybe the theory is that there is success in numbers: if enough of you have a go at the same time, some are surely bound to get through.

Whatever the reason, the refugees are getting restless: 44 made it several hundred yards into the Channel Tunnel on foot on Wednesday night; another 80 were caught inside Eurotunnel's terminal on Thursday; on Saturday night there were 100 to brave the guards, the dogs and the security cameras before being arrested.

"I think most of the people are just getting fed up," said Khalid, 38, a shopkeeper from Iraq, who was a member of Thursday night's unsuccessful escape bid. "The security is much tougher now. It used to be that you could expect to get out in days. Now it's more like weeks."

But Khalid said the rumor had also spread that the refugee center that houses them all could soon be closed down. "People know that," he said. "Of course, it makes them think that they have to really try to reach England as soon as possible, because if the center goes things will get even more difficult."

The Red Cross refugee center at Sangatte, 1.6 kilometers from the tunnel, is no place to spend any time at all. A vast mud- green shed on a hill outside this Calais suburb, it is home to a shifting population of anything from 300 to 1,200 asylum seekers, mostly Afghans, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, and Iranians.

Many are frighteningly well qualified: chemists, engineers, doctors, teachers. But in Sangatte, if you have children, you sleep in a prefabricated hut with two other families, maybe 25 people in 10 square meters. Single men sleep 15 to a tent at the back of the warehouse, built to stock materials when the tunnel was under construction but requisitioned by local authorities two years ago.

The food is basic, the water often cold and in short supply, there are frequent fights and occasional full-scale brawls or stabbings as tempers flare over the money that changes hands. The professional people-smugglers who haunt the center and undertake, with no guarantee of success, to guide its desperate inhabitants to the tunnel mouth now ask US$1,200 for a man and $2,000 for a woman.

It was a blustery, grey day in Sangatte on Sunday and Khalid, a plump and balding figure in patched jeans and a nylon jacket, was on the beach. Ahmad, his friend, who used to run a pharmacy, said that like Khalid he had arrived at the center a little over two weeks ago and had so far made seven attempts to jump on to a shuttle or smuggle himself on to a lorry.

"The worst is when it rains," he said. "There are so many guards now you're constantly throwing yourself in the mud. And you just wait and wait for a train to slow down enough for you to jump on. Sometimes none do; sometimes just one but it's not yet your turn so you can't jump. But the smugglers aren't all crooks -- if you've tried often they'll only take $100."

Faced with a growing nightly siege by as many as 400 would-be illegal immigrants to Britain, Eurotunnel -- the tunnel operator, which could soon face a pounds sterling 2,000 ($2,900) fine for every refugee it transports -- has already dramatically increased security within the 20-mile perimeter of its terminal.

The company now employs 300 national security staff, 150 of whom are on duty at any one time. Saturday night's breach of the razor wire fence near the A16 motorway was detected by heat sensors and infrared cameras, part of a sophisticated array of hi-tech security equipment newly installed at a cost of some $4.4 million.

Last month, describing the situation as urgent and intolerable, Eurotunnel asked the local district court to annul the requisition order that allowed the center to be opened. A ruling is not expected for some weeks. It is up to London and Paris to control their borders, a Eurotunnel spokeswoman said. "We are a private transport company. We've asked the French government for help but had no reply. The only reply we've had from the British government was that they were going to start fining us."

Sangatte's residents are equally unhappy. The proprietor of the dimly lit Weekend bar keeps a cattle prod and a gun behind the counter in case he needs them. One local said aggressively on Sunday that the problem was Britain's, and not France's. "France should only have to worry about the people it lets in, not those who try to get out," he said. "We have to manage this situation. It's your laws that have created it -- the fact that you don't have identity cards and people think it's easy to get a job."

The Red Cross believes closing the center would make no difference. So, perhaps understandably, do Ahmad, Khalid, and their friends. Like most of the refugees in Sangatte, their journey there has taken them months and cost them most of their possessions.

They are now, with just a little bit of luck, about 90 minutes from their destination. The last leg can be dangerous -- four refugees have died from electrocution or falls in the past year, and dozens more have been injured -- but they will keep trying.

"Even if they close the center," insisted Ismael, an Iranian with a degree in microbiology, "we will keep going and we have to do it from here. This is where you can get to Britain. We won't go back now."

-- Guardian News Service