Migrant crisis divides Europe

r Britain and France fight as 390,000 immigrants per year - 10 times the US rate - seek asylum in Europe.

The plaintive notes of a love song came from the dusty mountains of Kurdistan. But they were carried on a stiff sea breeze off the English Channel.

Suran, a 17 year-old from northern Iraq, who preferred not to use his last name, was singing to himself as he stood alone outside a refugee center here. He was waiting for night to fall, so he could make another attempt to sneak through the Channel tunnel, two miles away, into Britain.

He, and 1,700 other illegal immigrants living in a gigantic hangar run by the Red Cross, are at the flashpoint of a row between Britain and France over asylum seekers. Like the boatload of Afghans who tried to get into Australia last week, Suran's predicament also illustrates a global immigration crisis. Here, the differences in European asylum policies are being tested by 390,000 applicants a year - 10 times the US rate.

Matters have come to a head at the mouth of the 20-mile-long tunnel, because tighter security on other routes has encouraged more and more desperate migrants to try the trains that run every few minutes under the sea. Night after night, scores, sometimes hundreds, of them break through the razor-wire fence around the tunnel terminal. They risk their lives by trying to jump onto moving trains or hide in trucks.

The British government wants the French authorities to move the Red Cross camp further from the tunnel entrance. The French government has refused, and announced this week it would open a string of other centers in northern France to take the strain off Sangatte, where 1,700 people - almost all single young men - live in a space designed for 600.

Most of them are from Afghanistan and Iraq, though Iranians, Somalis, Sri Lankans and other nationalities are sheltering at this staging post, too. They have made perilous and expensive treks halfway across the world to flee war and poverty and to seek a new future, like the hundreds of Afghans recently stranded in the Indian Ocean for more than a week.

"The Taleban take me in the war", said Zalme, a medical student (who wished to be identified by his first name). His father had paid smugglers $5,000 to get him to Europe. "I want to be a doctor. In Afghanistan. I would not be a doctor, I would be in my grave."

Zalme left his home in Jalalabad with two cousins in early June, making his way to neighboring Pakistan and then by plane, car, truck and foot across the Middle East and Europe, being handed from one smuggler to another. Four days ago, he was put on a train to the port of Calais, and finally took a taxi to the camp at Sangatte.

Twice since then, he and his cousins have joined the refugees who leave camp each night for the tunnel terminal. Both times they were caught by the police, who brought them back. Zalme wants to go to England, rather than elsewhere in Europe, he said, because he speaks some English, "and they don't deport you from England."

Other illegal immigrants say they are attracted by the relative leniency of British asylum procedure, the lure of jobs, the lack of ID cards - which makes it easier to hide - as well as the other Afghans and Iraqis already living in England.

Even if their asylum applications are refused, they may be given "exceptional permission" to stay in Britain if they make it across the Channel, especially if they come from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, whose governments have no formal relations with European countries.

The French government turns a blind eye to those illegals who do not apply for asylum in France but who might risk persecution at home. That approach "is not a normal procedure under our law", admits a spokesman for the French police, who asked not to be identified. "But, if we can't send them home for humanitarian reasons, we let them stay without a defined status. It's a bit ambiguous."

Paris wants Britain to toughen its treatment of asylum seekers, in line with other European nations. "I say to my British friends ... they must also make an effort to harmonize legislation in order to make Britain less attractive," French Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant said this week.

Moves are afoot in the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to draw up uniform standards of treatment to stop 'asylum shopping' by immigrants seeking the best level of protection among European nations. The new rules would also oblige any government that has knowingly tolerated the presence of an illegal immigrant for more than two months to deal with an asylum application.

At the moment, European nations are required by treaty to send immigrants back to the first 'safe' European country that the refugee arrived in. But that often cannot be determined, since refugees hidden in a truck do not always know how they arrived in France, and no government is eager to accept responsibility.

Britain and Germany, which receive the most asylum applications, would like a system that would share immigrants more equally among the 15 E.U. members, but it seems unlikely that the others would willingly agree to such a scheme.

For now, England is the ultimate goal for the refugees in Sangatte. Suran said he has tried more than 50 times to get onto a chunnel train. "It's like football," he smiled. "From Sangatte to the trains. Get caught. Back to Sangatte. Next night, back to the trains. Up the field, down the field."

But enough of Suran's fellow refugees have succeeded to keep him trying. And, as he prepares a knapsack of Coca Cola and cookies to sustain him through the night, Suran sings a song from his old home, and dreams of a new one.

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