- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

LONDON Britain and France have agreed on a multimillion-dollar security plan aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants through the Channel Tunnel but failed to agree on a timetable to close a French Red Cross refugee camp that London blames for the problem.

The agreement to stiffen security on the French side of the tunnel rail link under the English Channel came in hours of talks Tuesday in London between British Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy.

What remains unresolved, at least for the time being, is the problem posed by the controversial Red Cross camp at Sangatte, France, which houses some 1,300 refugees at any time. The British Home Office estimates that every week, about 1,000 illegal immigrants from the camp attempt to hitch a train ride or even walk through the Channel Tunnel to reach Britain. London is demanding the camp be closed.

Sources close to the talks said the two sides "moved closer" to agreeing to a closure date for the Sangatte camp but not just yet. "We are not hyping the discussion with the French," Mr. Blunkett said. "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

The home secretary and the French interior minister agreed to meet again July 12, this time in Paris, to work out when and how to close the camp.

After Tuesday's talks, Mr. Blunkett said he and Mr. Sarkozy "are two people who can do business. We now have the opportunity of putting in place measures which will contribute to actually get this matter resolved once and for all."

The two agreed that British technology would be installed at Calais, France, next month aimed at detecting illegal immigrants. Other machines are to be put in place to spot fake passports and other forged documents in France.

They also said a double fence will be built at a cost of $7.4 million at the Frethun rail depot near Calais and that more security guards and French gendarmes will be posted. Joint teams of intelligence officers will be set up on both sides of the tunnel to track illegal immigration.

Mr. Blunkett also rejected demands at home Tuesday that the problem of asylum seekers be eased by immediately shipping back to France all illegal immigrants who reach Britain via French soil.

"What I cannot do is reach a bilateral agreement with the French that every single person who comes from France to claim asylum on our soil will be returned," the home secretary said. "France would not agree to that any more than we would agree if the boot was on the other foot."

But Mr. Blunkett insisted that, with installation of a new government in France, there was "a new spirit of cooperation" between London and Paris.

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