Refugees face instant rejection

24.May.02,  first published by The Guardian: read the original article here.

Secret papers reveal strategy if Sangatte stays open

Britain will adopt an immediate "refuse and return" policy to thousands of asylum seekers if ministers fail to reach a deal with France for the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp, according to a leaked Downing Street paper on asylum.

Ministers want to include this "unilateral threat" in their negotiating strategy with the French as a fallback position if they fail to get agreement on the closure of the Sangatte camp, near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

The new French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, a hardline conservative, said he aimed to close Sangatte.

"It is an objective but it is not a precondition. It is not possible to set a date," he said, referring to talks to be held next month. An interior ministry source in Paris said the government would in any case be unable to take any definite steps towards closing Sangatte before next month's general elections confirmed its mandate. "There is no immediate plan to close the camp. A lot of things need to be sorted out first," he said.

Mr Sarkozy made the announcement as resistance around Whitehall grew to Tony Blair's confidential plans to tackle the asylum crisis which were leaked to the Guardian. Ministry of Defence sources yesterday made clear they had reservations about the proposal to use Royal Navy warships to intercept boats carrying illegal migrants.

Nick Hardwick, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said that Mr Blair's decision to take personal charge of the issue meant he now ran a serious risk of being left with egg on his face: "The proposals are wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. The government has abandoned any attempt to protect refugees fleeing persecution."

Downing Street claimed that the leaked document was "an options paper". "This is an illustration of the thinking that is going on within government, but if you look at the individual ingredients of it, not every one of them will become government policy," Mr Blair's spokesman said.

As part of the preparations for next month's negotiations with the French, the attorney general has been asked to give fresh advice on whether it is possible under the Dublin Convention for Britain to "send back asylum applicants to another European Union country which it could be shown they had travelled through".

The Home Office "action plan" included in the leaked Downing Street papers also confirms that the 1,500 mainly Afghan and Kurdish people at the Sangatte Red Cross holding centre will be given the chance to apply for work permits and refugee status in Britain.

But no decision has yet been taken on whether their applications will be processed in Britain or at Sangatte.

Britain has been pressing France for several months to allow British immigration officials to operate at Sangatte and the proposal will be decided in the talks. The home secretary, David Blunkett, yesterday told the cabinet that formal negotiations could not start until June and July after the French parliamentary elections.

The leaked papers show that among issues to be thrashed out in the talks with the French are plans to develop the secure detention of those whose applications to enter Britain are rejected and for a "joint removals effort" with the French to return them to their country of origin.

The talks will also deal with how to pay the 4m cost of providing secure fencing at the Frethun railway marshalling yard, near Sangatte.

After Mr Sarkozy became the first French cabinet minister to visit the Sangatte camp, he said: "There is a problem downstream, that's England, and a problem upstream which allows illegal immigrants through before arriving on our territory."

France's new centre-right administration has launched a law and order drive. Solving the problems posed by Sangatte could prove a useful vote winner in next month's elections.

An interior ministry source in Paris said several problems would have to be solved before the closure of Sangatte, including what to do with the current residents and how to treat future asylum seekers who will continue to gravitate towards the Channel Tunnel.

"Hundreds of people were sleeping rough in Calais before the camp was opened. Do we want to return to that situation?"