Passport

Migrants in Europe Are Using Power in Numbers to Chunnel Their Way to the UK

Migrants who have made it as far as northern France are desperately trying to get through the U.K., and they've realized teaming up in massive groups gives them a better chance.

Migrants wait near the A16 highway as they try to access the Channel Tunnel on June 23, 2015 in Calais, northern France. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants wait near the A16 highway as they try to access the Channel Tunnel on June 23, 2015 in Calais, northern France. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Migrants camping out in Calais, France have a risky new plan for getting into the United Kingdom: storming the Channel tunnel in massive groups and hoping for the best.

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday nights, thousands of migrants jumped onto the backs of trucks and trains in desperate attempts to cross the border into England from Calais, where they had been staying in squalid makeshift encampments near the underwater “chunnel” that connects the two countries.

While the West has fixated on the boatloads of migrants who land on the shores of Greece and Italy from North Africa each week — or drown by the hundreds making the attempt — where those migrants end up next has rarely drawn so much attention.

London and Paris having long pointed fingers at each other for not doing enough to stop the migrants from entering the tunnel. This week, France responded by deploying 120 armed police officers to the area Wednesday and holding high-level talks with British officials to discuss the installation of an emergency fence in Calais to stop the migrants from entering the chunnel.

Eurotunnel, the company that operates the tunnel between France and England, said that nearly 200 of their security personnel worked overnight to prevent migrants from entering the terminal. But Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, said “a number” of migrants made it over the border, with one man reportedly dying after being run over by a truck.

Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the European branch of the Migration Policy Institute, said British Prime Minister David Cameron’s crackdown on illegal immigration into England this year has those trying to cross worried that time is running out to make it over the border crossing. This spring, Cameron proposed allowing British police to seize the wages of those found working illegally in England.  And some seem to believe that crossing en masse means it’s more likely at least a portion will make it through.

“More and more people come to Calais and fewer people make it into U.K.,” he told Foreign Policy.  “In the last few days there seems to be a more organized way in which they’re trying to go at it in large numbers.”

Some estimates peg the numbers at 5,000 migrants now living in the camps around Calais, compared to the 800 who reportedly stayed there last year. Gilles Debove, a police officer in Calais told said the increase happened over the course of a few weeks.

“It’s not a wave of 2,000 migrants, but three weeks ago there were 500,” he said. “So the figure has gone up four times in the last three weeks.”

France has previously blamed Britain for not providing enough financial support for improved security in Calais, where migrants will often wait for traffic to slow before jumping on the backs of trucks crossing through the tunnel into England. Papademetriou told FP the migrants use wire-cutters to remove locks from the back of trucks, then cram groups of people inside and hope not to be caught.

Europe’s overall migration numbers have dramatically increased this year as well, but many of those looking to enter England are doing so because they’ve already made it from as far away as Greece or Italy into France, and have family members they plan to meet in the U.K.

And Papedemetriou told FP the population trying to cross from Calais is “a microcosm” of the larger migration crisis in Europe. One population not found in Calais, he said, is Syrians, who usually qualify for asylum when they land in Greece or Italy. Instead, the migrants are mostly Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese, and other sub-Saharan Africans who move inward in Europe because they won’t be guaranteed asylum in the countries where they land.

“These are purposeful people who want to go to the U.K. because that they understand their families, relatives, friends, or ethnic groups are there,” Papademetriou told FP. “They’re looking for opportunities to stay in the U.K. and survive within these ethnic enclaves that have been created there.”

Tensions were increased this week by the fact train travel was affected and motorways were packed with traffic. Operation Stack, a protocol used by British authorities when Chunnel services are disrupted, has dramatically slowed down road travel into England, leaving hundreds of cargo trucks unable to continue on their routes.

But with more police deployed to the area, and security intensified on British and French sides, migrants are now left with few options. If they stay in Calais, they risk being rounded up and sent home. But if they hop on trucks, they’ll likely be discovered as well. Either way, time may be running out.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a joint operation in the next days not weeks or months to disperse these folks and identify and send them back [to their home countries],” Papademetriou said.

PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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