Migrant woes hinder UK-France travel, trade


Illegal migrants amassed in the French port of Calais are severely disrupting travel and trade across the English Channel as they try to sneak on board trains, trucks and ferries in a desperate bid to reach Britain. And the problem looks set to worsen.

In the most recent incident on Tuesday, a group of 40 Africans reportedly broke into the Eurotunnel site, bringing to a halt freight and passenger services, and causing lengthy traffic jams on motorways on both sides of the channel.

An unidentified man - likely part of the group who were eventually rounded up by border police - was found dead at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. It is believed he died while trying to stow away on a freight shuttle heading for Folkestone, a port in south-east England.

"We suppose that he wanted to get on the shuttle, that he missed it and that he was hit by the train itself," Mr Patricio Martin, regional director of the French border police, told The Times newspaper.

Last weekend, 150 migrants stormed the same terminal, also in an attempt to board freight trains bound for Britain. And it's not without precedent: last September, ships had to raise their ramps after about 200 migrants got past security guards at the port and tried to board ferries heading for Dover.

Migrant numbers in makeshift camps at Calais have swelled to an estimated 3,600 in the past six months and could surge to 5,000 over the summer, as those fleeing poverty, war and oppression in the Middle East and Africa travel to Europe in search of a better life.

They come from various countries, including Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Eritrea, sharing a singular goal: to get on transport bound for Britain by stealth, force and even violence.

Haulage firms, transport operators and businesses view the chaos at Calais as a logistical problem with hefty costs. Mr David Wells, chief executive of the Freight Transport Association, has warned the situation is "spiralling out of control", with truck drivers fearing for their safety.

The Calais Migrant Solidarity has been working with migrant groups in Calais since 2009. Its website lists 20 migrant deaths since last year, from causes such as being beaten up by a truck driver, being crushed under the wheels of a lorry while climbing out from underneath and injuries from jumping on to the top of a truck from a bridge.

Produce Consortium says an estimated 10 million pounds (S$21 million) worth of fresh fruit and vegetables has been thrown away since the start of the year as a result of transport delays. Meanwhile, Port of Dover assesses that a day-long strike by French ferry workers at Calais last month cost the British economy £1 billion, an indication of potential losses if migrants disrupted terminal operations more often.

In addition, British truckers run the risk of being fined £2,000 per stowaway if they are found to have carried illegal passengers, even without their knowledge. Fines totalled 4.2 million pounds last year.

The British and French governments have previously blamed each other for the crisis at Calais. The French view is that this is Britain's problem to deal with because the country attracts migrants with generous benefits and the opportunity to apply for asylum. The British believe France should step up security on its own soil and do more to arrest and deport these migrants.

Both governments have largely ceased finger-pointing for now and embarked on a joint effort to manage the crisis. Britain has agreed to spend 2 million pounds for upgraded detection technology, 1 million pounds for more sniffer dogs and 12 million pounds over three years for security infrastructure that includes an 18km, 2.7m-high fence around Calais port.

And since April this year, the UK Border Agency has introduced passport checks at Eurotunnel and ferry ports, which ironically means further queues and delays.

Whether these recent steps will prove sufficient deterrent for increasingly desperate migrants is unclear. In June, the Home Office reported that about 19,000 attempts to cross the Channel had been prevented so far this year, more than double the number during the same period last year. Adding to the pressure, the United Nations said more than 100,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to enter Europe between January and May this year.


This article was first published on July 11, 2015.
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