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Syrian refugees start UK asylum talks in Calais

Refugee representatives, Britain's Border Force begin negotiations after Syrians block French ferry terminal in attempt to reach UK

AFP , Friday 4 Oct 2013
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A team of British border police on Friday began talks with Syrian refugees, some on hunger strike, who are blocking a gangway at a ferry terminal in Calais in a desperate bid to win asylum in Britain.

Two representatives for the refugees, 60 of whom have blockaded the terminal since Wednesday, began negotiations with three members of Britain's Border Force, an AFP journalist said.

They were joined by four officials from the Medecins du Monde and Secours Catholique charities as well as the top government official for the Pas-de-Calais region.

The mayor of Calais, a Channel port from where many ships and ferries leave for Britain, said the protest highlighted the need for a concerted European strategy.

"It's for the government to take up its responsibilities," said Natacha Bouchart.

"There also has to be an awareness on a European level and the British must take a decision," she said.

"It's unacceptable that it is in France and at Calais that one has to control immigration."

The protest, which has seen 20 people go on hunger strike, prompted French authorities to offer to legalise the refugees' status.

Some 50 police from the CRS anti-riot squad moved in early Friday to try and clear the protestors from the footbridge but backed off when two of them climbed on top of a port building and threatened to jump off.

Pas-de-Calais prefect Denis Robin then went to the site and offered the Syrians, currently illegal immigrants, the right to asylum.

"Today, the Syrians present here are caught in a stalemate. What we can do is to offer them a status on French territory... in other words to make a request for asylum," he told reporters.

He said every asylum demand had a "95 percent chance of success."

"We cannot take any decision on their access to Britain," Robin said. "I am not persuading them to settle in France but trying to legalise their status."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has pledged to fast-track the applications of Syrians seeking asylum.

But the protesting refugees, most of whom arrived in Calais a month ago, have voiced disappointment at the way they were treated in France.

"We thought that France was the country where human rights are respected," said Tarik, a 19-year-old.

The refugees had affixed cardboard signs reading "Take us to the UK", and "We want to talk to David Cameron."

"But we live outside like dogs, hunted down by the police, we see we are not welcome, how can we seek asylum here?" Tarik said.

Ali, a 38-year-old, said although French President Francois Hollande had taken a strong stand against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, the French were not welcoming at all.

"Why does the president say one thing and the police another?" Ali said, adding that he had spent $13,000 (9,500 euros) to come to a country where the "president said 'we must help Syrians'".

"Here even animals are better treated than us," he said.

The UN refugee agency has said 17 countries, including France, have agreed to receive quotas of refugees fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria.

France has had only 850 registered demands for asylum from Syrians since the start of this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said late last month.

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