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First Steps Taken Toward Closing France's Sangatte Shelter - 2002-12-05

Under terms of a new agreement, a group of asylum seekers has left France's Sangatte shelter for new lives in Britain. It's the first step toward closing the Red Cross shelter.

About 40 Iraqi Kurds and Afghans left the Sangatte Red Cross shelter at dawn. They were transferred to a center near Calais on the English Channel for some final paperwork, before boarding a shuttle train through the channel tunnel to Britain.

Their departure marks the first step in implementing an agreement announced Monday by Britain and France to close Sangatte by December 30. The plight of 1,600 asylum seekers at the Red Cross shelter has made front-page news in both countries for months.

The plan to close the center is designed to end the ordeal of these refugees, and also to remove what some officials said was a magnet for asylum seekers.

The British government has agreed to take in roughly 80 percent of the people from Sangatte, most of them Iraqi Kurds. France will offer the other 400 Sangatte dwellers either political-refugee status, or a residence permit.

British officials were on hand to meet the first group of 40 in Calais. But they would not say exactly where the asylum seekers were going in Britain. Some are expected to rejoin family and friends. All the Sangatte residents transferred to Britain will be offered a three-month work permit, and employment opportunities.

The British-French agreement has drawn praise from U.N. refugee officials. But the French Human Rights League criticized the plan, saying it solved only the problems of Sangatte residents, not the larger, politically-explosive issue of illegal immigration and asylum seekers.

On Wednesday, French police dispersed a new group of about 50 immigrants, gathered in front of Sangatte. The group apparently hoped to benefit from the same opportunities as those inside the shelter. The French government announced they must go through the normal process of filing an application for political asylum in France.