Three hundred asylum-seekers, including small children, stormed a goods terminal at the Calais entrance to the Channel Tunnel early yesterday, disrupting overnight freight trains to Britain.
More than 200 of the migrants, who had marched together from the Sangatte Red Cross refugee camp near by, were rapidly rounded up. But up to 100 others were still believed to be hiding in freight wagons at the Calais-Fréthun terminal yesterday afternoon.
The invasion of the freight yard, which belongs to SNCF, the French railways, marks an abrupt change in tactics by the 1,200 asylum-seekers at the Sangatte camp.
Over the past six weeks, strengthened security has almost ended the nightly flow of refugees breaking into the main Channel Tunnel terminal at Coquelles, close to the tunnel's mouth. During the summer, up to 200 refugees a night were breaking into the Eurotunnel compound and trying to board trains to Kent.
The storming of the gates of the SNCF freight yard, two miles away, was being interpreted yesterday as a sign of frustration on the part of Sangatte residents, who are mostly refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. French railway officials said they were confident that none of the migrants had reached Britain.
The refugees ran at the freight yard gates en masse and overwhelmed guards by sheer numbers. They were mostly young men, but also included women and children.
All Kent-bound freight trains were halted while security guards and police searched every wagon in the yard. Freight trains that had been thoroughly checked were allowed to leave for Britain. Eurotunnel shuttles and Eurostar passenger trains were not affected.
SNCF officials said that security would be reinforced at the freight yard to prevent further mass incursions. "These people are desperate to get to England and will try anything," an SNCF spokesman said. "They are probably frustrated at having failed to cross the Channel in boats and by Eurotunnel and are trying to leave France now on our freight trains. They will not be allowed to do this."
Last month, the French police and Eurotunnel deployed more security guards around the shuttle terminal at Coquelles and put up a second line of barbed wire defences to hold back refugees.
Since then, Eurotunnel says, the number of migrants trying to board shuttle trains has shrunk almost to zero.