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Sangatte camp closes gates early

Sangatte has been used as a base for illegal immigration to Britain

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Special report: Europe on the move 

PARIS, France -- The controversial Sangatte refugee camp at the French end of the Channel Tunnel has closed its doors to incoming refugees -- 10 days earlier than planned.

The camp, which is holding around 1,800 immigrants, was originally scheduled to refuse new refugees from the middle of November, ahead of its closure by April 2003.

But a spokesman at the local Calais prefecture said it had taken less time than expected to interview the camp's existing inhabitants to establish whether they had a genuine case for asylum, or should be encouraged back to their home countries.

The spokesman added policemen had already been posted outside the camp, to which up to 100 new immigrants head each day.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett welcomed the move. "From today, the Sangatte centre will no longer draw would-be illegal immigrants to northern France," he said.

The Sangatte camp is on land owned by Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel and was requisitioned in 1999 to house up to 200 people.

But the numbers held there -- mostly Kurds and Afghans -- have soared.

The camp has often been used as a springboard for illegal immigration into Britain. Eurotunnel said it intercepted about 18,500 refugees trying to enter the Channel Tunnel in the first half of 2001 alone.

Last year, six people died trying to sneak through the tunnel, and more than 100 were injured.

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