- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

LONDON A Red Cross camp housing hundreds of refugees on the French side of the English Channel has created tension in the neighboring villages, whose residents blame a rise in violence on the asylum seekers trying to escape into Britain.
Violence between refugees and villagers of Sangatte was once rare but is now increasing. Two weeks ago, an Afghan was shot and partially paralyzed in the village's main square by French youths from a neighboring village.
"There is a real danger that local resentment at this situation could boil over. The village is under siege," said Sangatte Mayor Andre Segard. His deputy, Francois Musulet, is just as forthright. "Sangatte, the camp, is swallowing up Sangatte, the village. Illegal immigrants picked up by police over 100 miles away ask immediately to be taken to the 'hotel in Sangatte.' It's ridiculous."
Behind the counter of Le Weekend Cafe in Sangatte, Claude Devos brandished a pistol and an electric cattle prod. "You think this is over the top?" he said. "You try to run a business in Sangatte."
Less than a mile away, at the most notorious refugee camp in Europe, police using tear gas tried Friday night to control more than 200 rioting Iraqis and Afghans, some armed with iron bars, some with knives. "If they come to cause trouble in here, I'll know what to do," Mr. Devos said. "I don't care any more. I've just had enough."
Normal life came to a halt three years ago when the French government requisitioned an aircraft hangar in a nearby field to accommodate 200 refugees from the Kosovo war. The Sangatte Red Cross camp was born. It soon became the last stop before England for thousands of asylum seekers, economic migrants and people-smugglers.
This has had a catastrophic effect on Sangatte and neighboring coastal communities.
Hundreds of asylum seekers regularly storm the channel's rail link, trying to hitch a ride to Britain.
The British government's plan to set up similar centers in rural areas to accommodate asylum seekers has provoked protests from local residents who fear the camps would disturb their peaceful neighborhoods.
Around Sangatte, tourism, once buoyant, has dropped by more than 50 percent. House prices have plunged. Residents stay behind locked doors as bands of bored young men, almost all from Afghanistan and Iraq, roam the streets. The fear of violence is ever-present. The riot on Friday was not an isolated event, as criminal bands vie for unofficial control of the 1,600 refugees.
Many locals have stopped going out altogether. Some of those who do leave their homes have no intention of ever returning. As up to 300 refugees continue to arrive each week, replacing those who make it to England, a mini-exodus has begun among the Sangatte's 800 inhabitants.
"I've put my cafe up for sale, and I'm getting out of here," Mr. Devos said. "I'm not the only one. A restaurateur just down the road has sold up, too. No one goes out to eat any more in Sangatte. We're a small village, we're overwhelmed, and the tension here is going to explode. When it does I don't want to be here."
Christine Price moved from Britain to Sangatte with her husband 10 years ago. "It's just got worse and worse here over the past couple of years," she said. "Locals are upping sticks and moving out. Who wants to live in what amounts to an extended refugee camp?"
Mrs. Price's daughter, Amy, was sexually assaulted near her home by a group of Iraqi Kurds last year. These days young women never walk the streets alone.
Marie Merlen, 34, a mother of three, is also leaving. She said: "I have had to forbid my daughter from going out in Sangatte. In the past, refugees have exposed themselves to her and made all kinds of gestures from the beach in front of our house. Sangatte has become a living hell over the past year."
Pascal Dubus, a local doctor, has started a campaign for the camp to be closed to save the village where he grew up. He has received support from local councils in nearby Coquelles, Fretun and Bollingere places targeted by refugees seeking a route across the channel.
"The place is at breaking point," Mr. Dubus said. "The situation is just getting more and more tense. Put the numbers together: At least 1,600 refugees living cheek by jowl with 800 locals. Of those refugees, 75 percent are frustrated young men with nothing to do except dream of going to England."
Mrs. Merlen added: "Paris has sacrificed the people of Sangatte and the surrounding area in the name of supposed humanitarianism. They don't know what to do now, and neither do we. If the British tighten up their border, the camp will become completely out of control. And if that happens, I can tell President [Jacques] Chirac that something terrible will happen here. Ordinary people will start to take the law into their own hands."


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