LILLE, France – French police used tear gas Wednesday to stop hundreds of refugees from crossing illegally into Britain through the Channel Tunnel. At least one refugee was injured and the tunnel was shut to traffic overnight.
In all, about 550 refugees from a nearby Red Cross center attempted to cross through the tunnel on foot in two waves late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The 31-mile tunnel beneath the English Channel connects France and England by rail. Train traffic resumed at about 8 a.m.
Dozens of refugees try to enter Britain illegally every week through the tunnel, but such mass attempts are rare. The refugees apparently were trying to take advantage of decreased holiday train traffic.
About 1,000 refugees are housed at the Red Cross center in the coastal town of Sangatte, about a mile from the tunnel entrance. Many are Kurds or Afghans. They dream of a better life in Britain, where immigration laws are relatively liberal and they have an easier path to becoming legal residents.
In the first wave, about 150 refugees broke through electronic barriers and entered the tunnel at the town of Coquelles on Tuesday night. Overwhelmed security forces called in French police, who arrested 129 of them, said Helene Cargo, spokeswoman for Eurotunnel. The refugees had gotten one-quarter of the way through the tunnel. One of them suffered a fractured thigh.
Early Wednesday, another 400 refugees attempted to storm the tunnel at the same entrance. Police used tear gas to disperse them. They were taken into custody, and were slowly being sent back to the Red Cross center in nearby Sangatte.
Of the 129 arrested Tuesday, about 50 remained in custody, police officials said.
No Eurostar passenger trains were scheduled to run on Dec. 25 and 26, but two trains per hour transport passengers with cars. Those who missed their trains because of the tunnel closure were housed in hotels in France and Britain.
"We deplore that once again, we are confronted with such a situation," said Cargo. "We are a transport company."
She said Eurotunnel had repeatedly asked officials to move the refugee center at Sangatte.
Eurotunnel says it intercepted about 18,500 refugees trying to cross the tunnel in the first half of 2001 alone. The refugees either try to hop trains in the tunnel or cross by foot.