Closing the Sangatte Red Cross centre was supposed to have removed the magnet attracting thousands of asylum seekers to Britain.
But take a short stroll around Calais and you soon see that the plan has not worked. There may be fewer of them but the lack of anywhere to sleep while they wait to cross the channel has failed to dent their desire to come here. So, why do they keep coming?
“Good homes, houses, hospitals and no identity cards” is the explanation offered by one of three hundred refugees queuing for food near the docks. “The French, he insists, give us nothing and the police beat us," he went on, "so we would never stay here.” But according to the ferry company, P & O, the biggest worry is what the French police are not doing rather than what they are.
The company’s spokesman, Chris Laming, says some weeks his security staff at Dover are finding more than 120 illegal immigrants every week hiding on cross-channel lorries or ferries. That is almost as many as the numbers detected during the peak periods whilst Sangatte was open. Mr Laming insists that the French police have the same carbon dioxide detection equipment as his firm yet they seem incapable of finding these stowaways themselves. Can it be, I suggest, that they simply aren’t trying hard enough? Chris Laming, smiles and says “Well, you’ll have to ask them that!”
I did. Commander Rose of Calais Police was not very happy about the suggestion that his officers are not doing enough to stop refugees boarding British bound trucks and ferries. “We are not perfect, he admitted, but it is difficult to find these people with so many vehicles leaving the port each day. Anyway, we are doing better than we were.”
But is it not possible, I asked him, that some of your officers would rather let the refugees get on ferries to England than continue to present problems here? “I have heard this said," he replied with his eyes rolling skywards, "but this is quite untrue. We try very hard to stop these people.”
France's former Minister for Education, now a local Calais MP, Jack Lang, believes that if anyone is to blame it is the British. “You make your country attractive by not having identity permits, he insists. This was always a bigger draw for them than having food and shelter at Sangatte.”
Walk the streets of Calais and you soon find others who do not view the closure of the Sangatte centre late last year as the best of solutions. In fact, some would like to see it reopened. They complain that hundreds of asylum seekers now have to sleep rough in the town, just as they did in the days before the centre was opened. This, they say, makes the town look squalid and dangerous and is driving tourists away.
Calais’s Chairman of Tourism, Bernard Beauvalot, agrees with this last observation. He claims that figures compiled by the town’s Chamber of Commerce show that the number of tourists coming has dropped by twenty per cent in the last six months. Monsieur Beauvalot says many Britons are now cancelling trips to Calais because they fear they will be mugged or have their cars broken into. Does he think such fears are justified? “No," he barks, "such worries are all in the mind. This is a very safe town.”
Tourists coming to Calais over the last few weeks might have doubted this if they had seen some of the many fights between gangs of asylum seekers here. Several have involved baseball bats and iron bars. But Jack Lang dismisses any suggestion that asylum seekers are turning Calais into some sort of no-go town for frightened Brits. “Why would you British be worried by such people, he asks, when your cities have so many themselves. It’s ridiculous!”
The arguments look set to continue.
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