Sangatte closes door to new entrants
The controversial refugee camp at Sangatte, in Northern France, has closed its doors to new entrants, 10 days ahead of schedule.
The Red Cross camp, which is used as a staging post for asylum seekers entering the UK, has stopped taking new admissions as part of a joint UK-French initiative to clampdown on illegal immigration.
The pressure is now on UK home secretary David Blunkett to keep his part of the bargain by forcing through tough new asylum laws.
Mr Blunkett's Immigration and Asylum Bill faces a rough ride in the Commons, which is designed to speed up the asylum process.
Tories say they will insist on changes to the bill which ministers hope will be passed in the three days left in the current session of Parliament.
Bishops and some Labour peers joined Tories and Liberal Democrats in inflicting defeats on key parts of the bill in the Lords.
Mr Blunkett said: "I am very pleased that Sangatte is now closed to new entrants, 10 days earlier than planned.
"I have reassured the French government that we are determined to pass the NIA Bill, which forms our part of the broad-ranging agreement to tackle illegal immigration from northern France, of which the closure of Sangatte is an important part.
"From today, the Sangatte centre will no longer draw would-be illegal immigrants to northern France and traffickers will no longer be able to use it to ply their evil trade in human life."
The news comes as the UK scraps plans to build a large-scale asylum centre at Throckmorton, in Worcesterhsire, following protests from local residents.
The government said it would look at building smaller centres, closer to urban areas.
Meanwhile, the French authorities said all refugees currently living at Sangatte had been screened and given identification badges.
They "can enter and leave freely while their individual situations are examined," a statement said.
But new admissions have been stopped.
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said the status of refugees would now be studied "on a case by case basis".
The population of the centre constantly changes but is understood to be around 1,500 people.
The joint UK and French plan to close the camp was finalised in September and includes incentives for Afghan refugees to return to their homeland.
Some 40% of the refugees at Sangatte are Afghans, but the majority are believed to be Iraqi Kurds.
Thousands of asylum seekers have converged on Sangatte since the centre was set up three years ago in an abandoned Eurotunnel hangar.
They have then risked their lives to try to stow away on freight trains heading threw the Channel Tunnel.
Last year, six refugees were killed and 100 injured trying to sneak to Britain.
Eurotunnel, which runs the Channel Tunnel, has lost millions of pounds in freight traffic because of delays and postponed trains.
The company intercepted 18,500 refugees trying to cross the tunnel in the first half of 2001.
But Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service said the shutdown would simply send refugees to other points, or simply put them in the streets.
"These people are desperate and incredibly resourceful, and most have travelled huge distances," he said.
"They will keep coming and still attempt to find a way to Britain."