French train company SNCF angers right-wing politicians by allowing refugees to travel without valid tickets

The move prompted fears that more refugees would be heading to Calais and on to the UK

Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 15 October 2015 08:13 BST
Iraqi refugees hug after arriving at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine railway station in western France, in September.
Iraqi refugees hug after arriving at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine railway station in western France, in September. (AFP/Getty Images)

Conductors working for France’s state-owned railway company have been told not to throw refugees without valid tickets off trains, sparking claims more migrants will come to the UK.

An internal document sent to staff at SNCF directed that fees be waived under certain circumstances to show “humanity” but the firm denied it was offering completely free travel after a slew of criticism from right-wing politicians.

Xavier Bertrand, a politician from Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right Les Républicans, described SNCF’s policy as “intolerable” as some social media users expressed anger at claims refugees were being put before French nationals.

The move prompted claims more refugees would reach Calais and attempt to enter Britain (PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the nationalist Front National party, wrote an open letter to chief executive Guillaume Pepy accusing him driving migrants towards Britain.

“By facilitating the journeys of illegal immigrants, you should realise that you are making the situation worse in Calais,” she said.

“A lot of illegal immigrants want to reach England. You are facilitating the dirty work of the people smugglers.”

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, told The Times that it was a very unhelpful decision “which will have serious implications for illegal migration into Britain”.

Anti-refugee protesters march in Calais

He said: “It will encourage migrants to travel around France and put even greater pressure on places like Calais. When they find Calais is closed they will travel at French taxpayers’ expense to the next port.”

But SNCF said free tickets were not being handed out and that the policy aimed to prevent conflict with other passengers over seat bookings.

The company said the vast majority of refugees had tickets and the rule, which has only been applied four times, intended to help cases when large groups were trying to board together.

“We sometimes come across people without a ticket or who maybe don't have the right one,” a spokesperson for SNCF told France TV Info.

“And it's not always easy to get the right ticket to the right destination when you don't speak French.”

In that situation, conductors have been told to give refugees a “zero euro” reservation ticket and allow them to continue their journey, rather than removing them from the train.

“We are not talking about chronic fraudsters,” said SNCF spokesman Christophe Piednoël.

“What's been put in place is the possibility for free booking in order to attribute numbered seats to the refugees so they remain grouped together and they can avoid any risk of conflict that may come if they'd taken seats reserved by other passengers.

“These are people are in exceptional circumstances, and are often fatigued or in distress. It is only natural to handle them with humanity.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in