France Says It Will Close Sangatte, but Not Yet; REFUGEES: `Longer-Term Solution Involves Changes to EU Laws'

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Byline: JANE MERRICK

THE Home Office last night welcomed plans announced by France's Interior Minister to close the Sangatte refugee camp.

Nicolas Sarkozy said it was an objective of the French Government to close the Red Cross camp but no date had been set.

The camp is used by illegal immigrants as a staging post to smuggle themselves across the Channel.

Home Secretary David Blunkett's spokesman said Mr Sarkozy's remarks were ``pretty much consistent'' with what British ministers had been saying for the past 24 hours, but although Mr Blunkett had had talks with Mr Sarkozy no deal had been set over the closure.

Mr Sarkozy said during a visit to the controversial camp near Calais, ``Closing Sangatte is an objective but it is not a precondition. It is not possible to set a date.''

He ruled out any swift decisions toclose the camp, warning that closure risked causing more security problems than it would resolve.

In a sideswipe at British law he said, ``The absence of legislation on identity cards in Britain and the possibilities of access to work make Britain attractive for these asylum seekers. These things are appealing to refugees, encouraging them to go to the UK, and as long as United Kingdom policy is seen as favourable to them the problem of Sangatte will not be resolved.''

The minister said he had accepted an offer of talks in London on June 17 with Mr Blunkett.

After touring the camp he made it clear that if, as expected, he kept his job after France's elections the refugee problem would be a priority.

He said he had visited the site to express concerns about the gravity of the situation and in recognition of the exasperation of the local people. The situation was no longer acceptable to the asylum seekers themselves, to the local population who had had the Sangatte camp in their midst since 1999 or to the forces of law and order. …