Seeking Refuge: Calais crisis ensnares locals as unwitting smugglers

The spike in migrants attempting to cross the Channel tunnel into Britain isn't just rattling Paris and London. It's also brought the business of people smuggling, and crime more generally, into the local community.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A TGV high speed train passes behind razor-wire fencing close to the Channel Tunnel site on which a sweat shirt is stretched over the barbs to protect asylum seekers who climb over the fence in Calais, northern France, today.

This week has seen a massive spike in attempts by migrants trying to breach the Channel tunnel to get to Britain. 

But while the surge of nearly 3,500 in just two nights, leaving one dead, highlights the boiling pressure on European borders, amid an unprecedented movement of people into the EU, there is a more local impact as well. The trafficking of migrants is bringing a host of ripple effects, from damage to local businesses to worries that locals might become unwitting smugglers themselves.

Even as Brussels works to find a large-scale solution, on the smaller scale events in Calais have strained local businesses and alerted truck drivers and casual travelers alike that their once rather humdrum border crossing is now a high-stakes operation.

“As a truck driver, if you can avoid Calais, you do,” says Peter Clark, who transports cow hides and steel and regularly crosses through Calais. But now he no longer spends the night here after five Vietnamese migrants recently climbed into his truck, without his knowing, he says, and he was fined. “We’re just working. We’re just doing our job.”

Intentional smuggling...

For year, Calais has drawn migrants trying to reach Britain, but never has it been so flagrant. Most try to hop trucks, which in turn travel on board trains and ferries. In 2011, 4,500 migrants were discovered trying to cross into Britain from Calais. This year, 25,000 migrants attempted to cross in just the first six months, even before this week's surge.  

The situation has come to a head in recent weeks amid a surge of migration across the Mediterranean and a ferry strike in Calais. That led thousands of migrants to attempt to jump into stalled ferry-bound trucks headed for Britain, where they say they have better opportunities. In response, the port increased its security, which has pushed migrants to switch to the more treacherous Channel tunnel.

After a meeting between the French and British governments on Tuesday, called in response to more than 2,000 migrants attempting to cross the channel Monday night, British Home Secretary Theresa May emerged telling the BBC: "We are both clear that we need to ensure we are dealing with the terrible criminal gangs, the people smugglers, who are making a profit out of the human misery of many people.”

The smuggling groups that have long worked in Calais have largely been based in Albania, says Gilles Debove, secretary general of the police officers’ union in Calais. In 2011, some 10 smuggling rings were dismantled here, with 450 arrests, compared to 2014, with around 12 rings broken up and 800 arrests.

But increased demand is luring locals to the smuggling business too. Some 100 Britons have been arrested in the past year alone for aiding illegal immigration, says Julie Colaert, deputy public prosecutor for the local district that includes Calais.

“Three years ago, we rarely stopped English or French smugglers. Most were from Eastern Europe,” she says. “But in the last two years, we’re regularly stopping French and British drivers. Many are motivated by the idea of earning extra money because they’re having major financial problems, while others say they’re trying to pay off debt linked to drugs.”

She says in her jurisdiction they hear five cases a week of individuals aiding illegal immigration. For drivers caught making the trip, they’re fined 30,000 euros and face 5 years in prison. For drivers who, on top of making the illegal drive, do so in inhumane conditions – carrying someone in the trunk of a car or in enclosed wooden trunks in the back of a truck – fines can go up to 750,000 euros and 10 years in prison, or even higher, depending on how many people are onboard and whether there are minors involved.

... and unintentional smuggling

But it is the migrants’ attempts to climb aboard cars and trucks without drivers’ knowledge that worries locals the most, as they fear turning into unwitting smugglers. Mr. Clark, the driver, is one of those: he faces a 2,000 pounds fine for the migrants who sneaked on board his truck.

David Canelle, who owns a restaurant in Calais, says the situation has forced him to change his behavior. “I avoid the highway around the port if I have my kids in my car with me,” he says. “It’s definitely on my mind.”

Regular drivers who also use this crossing point say they feel more vulnerable. At a camper van park on a recent day, migrants mill around the area. Patrick Delaney, who has shuttled between his home in London and France many times over the last decade, uses Calais as his regular exit point because it’s the fastest route, but now he checks his camper every night to make sure it’s locked and secured.

“If things get worse, I’ll change the town I leave from,” he says.

Britain and France are working together to increase security, publicize the dangers of border crossing – nine migrants have died since June – and help bring a sense of normalcy back to Calais. Britain has announced it was creating a “secure zone” for British-bound trucks who don't want stowaways. 

It is also spending more money to erect barriers around the terminal and platforms around the Eurotunnel in Calais.

But for many residents in Calais, a former industrial town fallen on hard times, locals worry about the damage already done. Sylvie Cambie has run the Aux Deux Moulineaux restaurant for the past 13 years. Literally at the crossroads of the crisis, she can see migrants every day walking across town, to reach the ferry port or continue onwards to the Eurotunnel.

Ms. Cambie says business has been slow recently, which she attributes to the bad press Calais has been getting. “As a business owner, it’s very hard. I’ve lost a lot of business,” she says. “Our image has been tarnished and not as many tourists are coming…. We can’t help all these migrants. We have problems here in France too, like the economy and a lack of jobs.”

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