New measures by the United Kingdom to control illegal immigration, coupled with France's closure of a center long used as a base by asylum seekers trying slip into the UK, signal fresh cooperation on immigration issues between London and Paris.
The UK's enactment of a strict new law governing refugee asylum, immigration, and nationality on January 8 was part of a deal reached by London and Paris on the shutdown of the Sangatte emergency refugee center, which lay close to the Eurotunnel transport terminal in Calais and only 30km from English shores.
The Red Cross-administered center's closure on December 15, 2002, patched up a long-running bilateral dispute over the over almost nightly attempts by hundreds of center residents to sneak into the UK via the Eurotunnel. Over the course of Sangatte's three-year existence, a giant, old warehouse acquired for it by the French government provided temporary housing for over 70,000 illegal immigrants of 55 different nationalities, the majority of them Iraqis and Afghans. Most of these refugees were drawn to the UK's comparatively loose asylum laws and the possibility of obtaining work and social benefits (see related article).
British authorities frequently expressed frustration with France's inability to stop refugees from reaching the Eurotunnel connecting the two countries. Despite all the security measures enforced around the port, the Eurotunnel, and the nearby railway station (including barbed-wire fences and regular inspections of trucks and trains), every night, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Sangatte risked their lives hiding beneath truck tarpaulins or under trains. In the morning, if their attempt to "escape" had failed, they would return to the center to rest. Despite these activities, French Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy only agreed to close Sangatte on the condition that London "share the burden."
For their part, British authorities promised to introduce the new law tightening their restrictions on the right to asylum. The law requires asylum seekers to prove that they genuinely need any financial help they receive from the state, and arranges for British immigration officers to conduct joint patrols with the French police of French ports and railway stations near the English coast.
In addition, the UK agreed to accept three quarters of Sangatte's refugees. Prior to the closure, Sarkozy and his British counterpart David Blunkett agreed on how to divide up the 1,600 center residents still awaiting word on their asylum applications. All of Sangatte's Iraqi refugees, most of them Kurds, as well as most of the Afghans who could prove that they had relatives living in Great Britain, were allowed into the UK and given a four-year residency permit and a work permit.
The remaining 300 refugees received either a French residency permit or special refugee status, including accommodation. Under an agreement between the French and Afghan governments, several Afghans obtained assistance with returning home via United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees-organized efforts.
The closure of Sangatte has spelled political success for Sarkozy. He has obtained something from London that previous governments had always failed to secure -- namely, making UK immigration laws less attractive to asylum seekers. At the same time, his diplomacy has shifted the burden of closing Sangatte to London. The UK already saw nearly 72,000 asylum seekers in 2001, compared to 48,000 such applications in France, yet the UK is accepting most of the center's residents. Another positive aspect of this debate for Sarkozy and his conservative base has been to reopen discussions concerning asylum reforms in France. The government under Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has promised to toughen up the laws in these areas before the end of the year.