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Britain faced with tunnel-sized loophole in immigration laws

August 28, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ Illegal immigrants have discovered a loophole the size of a tunnel in Britain’s immigration system: Buy a ticket in Paris and join tourists and business travelers on the train under the British Channel.

The result has been an influx this summer of Africans, Asians, Turks and East Europeans with no passports or visas, most seeking asylum. Forty-five percent are from Somalia.

The British government says immigrant-smuggling gangs have opened a backdoor into Britain _ courtesy of a law that exempts Eurostar trains from a $3,200 fine for every individual arriving without proper documents.

``We intend to crack down on the racketeers for the sake of genuine asylum-seekers who face enormous problems and deserve support,″ Immigration Minister Mike O’Brien warned recently.

While airlines and ferry operators check ahead of time to see whether passengers have proper documents to enter Britain, Eurostar is under no obligation to screen passengers in advance.

When regulations for the 31-mile-long Channel Tunnel between France and England were drawn up, no strict passport controls were set up because the European Union was supposed to be frontier-free. That hasn’t happened, and Britain and France often inspect people’s passports.

British immigration officials aboard Eurostar check passports once a train is moving _ but by then it is too late to keep those without proper documents out of the country.

``At the moment, any criminal who can charge people money and successfully get them on to a Eurostar train is assured of them being allowed to stay in Britain, and then to be able to claim welfare benefits,″ said John Tincey, spokesman for the Immigration Service Union.

The smuggling gangs mainly operate out of Paris, site of Eurostar’s Gare du Nord terminal.

Organizations assisting refugees insist that asylum-seekers arriving on Eurostar have a right to a hearing, just as do those arriving by plane or boat.

``Our main concern was that these people were being branded as bogus by certain sectors of the media, which we thought was terribly unfair before their cases had been heard by the competent government authority,″ said Jessica Yudilevich, spokeswoman for the Refugee Council.

During the first six months of this year, 510 people asked for asylum upon arrival at London’s Waterloo station, 229 of them from Somalia, according to the Home Office, the ministry responsible for immigration.

In July, 850 people, including 400 Somalis, arrived without papers, overwhelming immigration officials, Tincey said.

``Literally, we would be sending people away from Waterloo not really knowing who they were, and not really knowing where they were going,″ he said.

At the end of July, O’Brien urged Eurostar to start checking travel documents at the Gare du Nord. He warned that the government was considering imposing the same $3,200 fine that airlines now face for undocumented passengers.

Jean-Louis Ottavi, who heads the French Interior Ministry’s Immigration Control division, said Thursday that as ``an act of solidarity and cooperation,″ French police had voluntarily started checking papers of embarking Eurostar passengers Aug. 15.

The controls ``have had a dissuasive effect,″ Ottavi said.

The latest figures, however, show 109 passengers, including 32 Somalis, arrived at Waterloo without documents Aug. 16-19.

Britain wants a permanent system in place for checking the documents of Eurostar passengers, a Home Office spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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