To police on patrol near the tunnel linking Britain and France, it's a familiar story: As many as 15 times a day, citizens report seeing people riding in the backs of trucks, or wandering on the shoulder of the motorway.
The nomads, who are arrested and sent to immigration centers, are part of a flood of illegal immigrants finding their way into Britain. Its liberal asylum laws have for years made it a magnet for the world's oppressed and impoverished.
But because of the number of migrants, which is causing public outcry at home and in France, at the other end of the tunnel, Britain is beginning to harden its stance on immigrants. On Wednesday, Britain sent an Afghan family back to Germany, where they had first tried to gain asylum two years ago.
Yet Britain is simply falling in line with much of Western Europe. "There is absolutely no doubt that Britain's policy on immigration has been harmonized with the rest of the European Union," says analyst Jenny Bourne of the Institute of Race Relations, an independent think tank in London. From the Netherlands and France, where last spring's elections resulted in right-leaning governments, to Denmark and Germany, which are implementing new anti-immigration laws, the welcome mat is being taken in.
Now Britain and France are cooperating to discourage migrants. Since the English Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, immigration has been a point of contention between the two countries. In northern France, two miles from the tunnel entrance stands the Sangatte camp, a Red Cross refugee center that houses 1,500 refugees 500 from Afghanistan and 1,000 Kurds from Iraq. Britain says that France does little to stop the mainly young men, who make nightly attempts to board trains and trucks bound for Britain. The French say the British need to make their side less attractive to migrants.
In a deal struck last month, France said it would shut the camp by March if Britain toughens its policies on illegal immigrants. The French want Britain to introduce an equivalent of the French identity card, being debated in Britain as an "entitlement" card, and to create accommodation centers to house asylum seekers while their claims are being processed.
A new bill under debate in Parliament aims to put an end to what Home Secretary David Blunkett calls "the real difficulty of people using clandestine entry into the UK as an alternative to legitimate economic migration." One provision calls for the construction of the asylum accommodation centers. The centers would include shopping, healthcare, and religious facilities, and are part of an effort to keep asylum seekers from disappearing into Britain's underground markets.
But the idea is drawing the ire of some Britons. Jack Hegarty, head of planning at the Wychavon District Council, which is responsible for one of the proposed sites, says residents are now selling their houses. Says Ms. Bourne: "Our research shows that there is often antagonism to these centers because the government is not preparing communities, but rather imposing the centers on them."
As Britain seeks to discourage illegal migration, asylum seekers have already lost, as of July, the right to accept offers of employment after six months of waiting for their applications to be processed effectively preventing these migrants from entering the work force because of the time it takes for approval of an application. All, however, still can receive accommodation from local authorities and subsistence benefits through the National Asylum Support Scheme.
Both the job opportunities and the subsistence benefits have been described by French politicians as a chief "pull factor" in making Britain attractive for asylum seekers.
In the past week, Britain reiterated that it will always "honor our international obligations" in offering haven to legitimate political refugees. But the loopholes that allow abuse of the asylum system must be closed, it says. A report just released by the independent think tank Migration Watch UK gives what it calls "modest" estimates of 25,000 people annually entering Britain undetected. The report says that this number, combined with 60,000 political asylum seekers whose applications are rejected but who are not sent home plus 35,000 legitimate visitors from devel- oping countries and Eastern Europe who stay on illegally adds up to 250,000 legal and illegal immigrants entering Britain every year. According to Migration Watch chairman Andrew Green, only about 5 percent qualify for political asylum.
Asylum advocates worry that new regulations will be too restrictive and could end up discouraging those with legitimate asylum claims. Says Don Flynn, a coordinator at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI): "The government agrees that a globalized economy is inevitable, but they want 'managed migration.' We agree in principle, but refugees don't always have time to follow the necessary process. The government's view, however, is that ... refugees should be applying for asylum to countries nearer their own."
Meanwhile, down at the Channel Tunnel, Britain is contributing $3.7 million to the $7.6 million cost of security fencing. Video surveillance cameras and extra policing are being added. British rail freight operator EWS, which runs 200 trains a week through the tunnel, has already seen a slight improvement in the number of trains able to move through the tunnel without incident. In the past nine months, EWS has suspended 3,000 runs because of the disruption caused by migrants boarding their trains.
"The [British] government has given us an assurance that the necessary security will be in place by the first of September," says EWS public affairs manager Graham Mieklejohn. "We look to the politicians to deliver on those promises."
At the same time, EWS has lodged an official complaint with the European Commission that, by not stopping the migrants on the French side, France has breached a Treaty of Rome provision which ensures the free movement of goods across Europe.