British, French ministers inspect tunnel amid migrant fears

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The interior ministers of Britain and France inspected security at the Channel Tunnel between their countries on Monday amid concerns the Arab revolts will trigger a wave of immigration.

Theresa May and Claude Gueant toured the checkpoints and hangars near the tunnel entrance and in the nearby ferry port of Calais, where sniffer dogs and police scour vehicles for hidden migrants, drugs and contraband.

The ministers were due to speak to reporters after a meeting with the mayor of Calais, a transit point for hundreds of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia bound for Britain.

The visit follows a similar one by Gueant to France's southern border with Italy, where there are reports of increased numbers of Tunisians and Libyans fleeing unrest in their homelands and seeking a new life in Europe.

"High on our agenda will be the impact of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa on illegal immigration," May wrote in an editorial in Britain's right-wing Daily Express newspaper on Monday.

Thousands of migrants have fled to France via Italy from Arab countries in recent months, particularly from Tunisia and Libya, where uprisings against autocratic rulers sparked chaos.

France has refused most of them and Britain fears many will head for its shores, swelling a cross-Channel flow that authorities say has decreased over the past two years since the closure of a major migrant camp in Calais.

"I have made absolutely clear to my counterparts in Europe that we will not agree to so-called 'burden sharing'," May wrote in the Daily Express. "Britain will not be accepting large numbers of North African migrants."

Gueant told the French regional daily La Voix du Nord that more than 2,000 immigrants had already been arrested this year in northern France as they were heading for Britain hidden in trucks.

Some 80 more would-be migrants had also been picked up as they tried to break into the secure area around the tunnel entrance, he added.

Nevertheless, he argued, the situation is not as difficult as it had been in 2009 when President Nicolas Sarkozy's government moved to close down a make-shift refugee camp that had sprung up on the dunes outside Calais.

He added that 3,200 Tunisians had already been sent home, and argued that as "their country is entering a new ear of freedom and democracy there is no longer any reason to flee Tunisia."

May's visit will also allow her to discuss with Gueant arrangements for the 2012 London Olympics, an event the British capital won in the teeth of strong competition from the favourite candidate Paris.

Officials say the Calais region -- a short ride from London by train -- is expected to serve as a rear base for some foreign sports teams competing next year. They were due to give more details later on Monday.

© 2011 AFP

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