Britain’s ‘enormous’ state handouts to asylum seekers were furiously criticised yesterday – by the Mayor of Calais. Natacha Bouchart said these payouts were the lure for thousands of foreigners using the French port as a staging point to cross the Channel illegally.

She said the UK government’s policy was ‘imposing’ migrants on the town, costing the local economy millions. Mrs Bouchart, 45, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, said she was so disgusted by what was going on that she refused to have any meetings with British government representatives.

She said the British system was predominantly to blame for thousands of Africans, eastern Europeans and Asians trying to clamber aboard lorries and trains in Calais every day.

‘Requesting asylum is easier with them (the British) than in France. The asylum seeker is given accommodation and receives up to £40 a week according to their case, when the annual income of the average Eritrean is around $200 (£135). ‘That seems enormous and it’s attractive to them.’

In Britain, asylum seekers can receive payments as soon as a claim is lodged. In France, an asylum seeker generally is given nothing for six months. That is because the French bureaucratic system means it routinely takes a minimum of six months to have a claim for asylum – and with it the opportunity to receive state support – accepted.

Once accepted, the claimant can receive a range of benefits – but almost all prefer to try to reach Britain and secure immediate benefits. Married asylum-seeking couples in the UK receive £66.13 a week, while single people get up to £42.16. They are also entitled to free NHS care, housing and education for any children.

Home Office Minister Phil Woolas has been seeking closer cooperation with France in the hope of preventing the crisis in Calais from escalating.

Ministers have been alarmed by figures showing the number of migrants caught trying to reach Britain by stowing away on lorries at Calais has doubled over the last year to more than 2,000 a month. The count of 6,031 in the first three months of this year compares with 2,919 caught by port security services trying to gain access to trucks queueing for ferries between January and March 2008.

The pressure on the port of Calais is being matched at the Channel Tunnel terminal outside the town, which has reported a 50 per cent rise in illegal migrants over last year. Most are trying to board lorries waiting for places on freight trains.

Mrs Bouchart said she had received many requests for a meeting with UK officials to attempt to sort out the mess. ‘I’ve never followed them up because I consider them provocative. To receive in the city hall a representative of the British governmentis to support what it imposes on us.’

The mayor pointed out that the Calais Chamber of Trade was having to pay £12million a year to secure the port area – money she suggested the French government should provide.

Calling for a ‘change in attitude’, Mrs Bouchart said the current build-up of UK-bound foreigners was ‘untenable’. ‘Each day the town of Calais finds itself under psychological pressure because of the presence of the migrants. ‘That blocks our economic development. That stops some businesses from establishing themselves and that costs a lot.’

Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green said: ‘The Mayor of Calais is right that the long-term chaos in our immigration system, from badly-protected borders to the Home Office not sending an officer to many appeal hearings, encourages people to try their luck. ‘The answer for Britain and the people of Calais is a well-run immigration system with a proper Border Police Force.’

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch UK, said: ‘Gallic logic has reached the inescapable conclusion that Britain is a soft touch for asylum seekers. ‘You only have to say the word asylum and you have an 80 per cent chance of staying in Britain, more often than not illegally.’

In response, Mr Woolas said: ‘The illegal migrants in Calais are not queueing to get into Britain – they have been locked out by one of the toughest border crossings in the world. These successful controls have been possible thanks to the close co-operation of the French government.

‘Benefits are only available to those who play by the rules, work hard, pay taxes and learn to speak English. ‘I have made it clear that those trying to cheat our system will not be tolerated, which is why last year UK Border Agency staff worked tirelessly at our French and Belgium controls – stopping more than 28,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally.’

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