Calais crisis: How militancy and desperation collided to plunge Channel crossing into chaos after migrants took advantage of workers' strike

The action saw the UK’s main transport links to the continent left at a standstill

Jamie Merrill
Wednesday 24 June 2015 12:30
‘Worse than it has ever been’: migrants climbing into the back of a lorry on the A16 highway in northern France leading to the Channel Tunnel on Tuesday
‘Worse than it has ever been’: migrants climbing into the back of a lorry on the A16 highway in northern France leading to the Channel Tunnel on Tuesday

Europe’s migration crisis played out dramatically on the motorways of northern France, as hundreds of desperate migrants attempted to board UK-bound lorries while taking advantage of a wildcat strike by Calais port workers.

The UK’s main transport links to the Continent were left at a standstill throughout the day, after striking MyFerryLink workers blocked the Port of Calais and “broke into” the Channel Tunnel where they started a fire, prompting the cancellation of all passenger and freight services.

Eurostar and ferry services are resuming normal service this morning.

Thousands of British tourists were left stranded with Eurostar passenger services suspended, while truckers and drivers using the Eurotunnel vehicle shuttle service were facing hours of delays in getting home after trains finally began running again at around 6.30pm.

This morning, the backlog from the chaos has left hundreds of freight lorries still parked along the M20 motorway as Kent Police confirmed that Operation Stack – which has remained in place overnight – would continue today.

The Foreign Office was forced to issue an unprecedented warning yesterday to drivers in northern France, as hundreds of migrants used the disruption at the French port to attempt to break into the back of gridlocked heavy goods vehicles headed for Britain.

“There are large numbers of illegal migrants in and around Calais, who may seek to enter the UK illegally,” said an official statement.

“Although local police patrols have been reinforced, you should keep vehicle doors locked in slow-moving traffic and secure your vehicle when it is left unattended.”

The warning follows an increase in security on both sides of the Channel.

A police officer sprays tear gas at migrants on the A16 highway in Calais (Getty)

The chaotic scenes came as a new National Crime Agency report showed the number of migrants caught trying to enter Britain clandestinely had more than doubled last year, with attempts to come to Britain from North Africa rising by 300 per cent.

There was nothing clandestine about the scenes outside Calais, though. Aerial footage showed dozens of migrants trying to board lorries on the A16 motorway, after protesting French ferry workers set fire to tyres and hay bales on the road in the early hours of the morning.

The number of migrants gathered around Calais is thought to have swollen to 3,000 since April, in what aid workers have a called a “catastrophic” situation. Up to 2,000 more from countries including Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan are expected to arrive over the summer.

Outnumbered riot police drew their batons and threatened migrants with CS spray. They struggled to contain the numbers of people jumping on lorries, which sat stationary in 10-mile-long tailbacks.

The scene at St Pancras station in London, as stranded Eurostar passengers wait as trains are cancelled

Authorities in Calais have been struggling under the weight of increased migrant numbers. In recent weeks reports of migrants blocking roads have prompted the town’s mayor to call on the French government to provoke a “diplomatic incident” with Britain over the issues. On Monday Natacha Bouchart said that Britain does not give a single “euro” towards helping the town handle the influx.

French aid workers in the town have warned that the problem is coming to a head, and that a sprawling makeshift campsite known locally as the Jungle has become so large that it is no longer safe.

Migrants wait near the A16 highway as they try to access the Channel Tunnel in Calais (Getty)

Tensions mounted further as the deputy mayor of Calais blamed the British Government for the number of people trying to board lorries. Philippe Mignonet told the BBC: “We will block the port – as simple as that. We’ll arrange to block the tunnel if nothing is done.”

The Home Office said it was monitoring the situation closely, and was working with French authorities to strengthen law and order in and around Calais. David Cameron’s official spokeswoman said the Prime Minister was in “close touch” with French authorities. Mr Cameron is expected to use an EU summit on Thursday to call for a “comprehensive approach” to illegal immigration.

Striking employees of the French company MyFerryLink, a cross-channel ferry service, stand in front of tyres set on fire as they block the access to the Channel Tunnel in Calais (Getty)

Donald Armour, the Freight Transport Association’s international affairs manager, warned that hauliers were “really, really worried” that a migrant or lorry driver could be seriously injured.

“There is a lot of fighting between the migrants who all want to be on the best part of the road to get on to the lorries,” he said. “The situation is worse than it has ever been.”

Duncan, a British lorry driver stranded in Calais who did not want to give his surname, said: “I saw smoke billowing up from the road ahead as tyres and debris was set on fire by the French strikers.

French riot police take position to drive out protesters blocking the railway tracks (Getty)

“There were would-be immigrants coming out of the roads and bushes trying to dodge the French riot police and get in our lorries.”

Part of the M20 motorway was forced to close to hold freight traffic on the coast-bound carriageway of the key route to the Continent. Police in Kent said there would probably be continued disruption on the road around Dover throughout Wednesdayday.

The strikers fear the sale of their company to the Danish firm DFDS by its current owner Eurotunnel would result in redundancies.

French riot police officers drive out protesting French employees of the freight ferry company MyFerryLink (Getty)

The ferry operator P&O hit out at the decision by Eurotunnel, which it said had taken place with little or no consultation with MyFerryLink staff. A spokesperson for DFDS said it understood this was a “difficult time for MyFerryLink employees”, but that it hoped the action would “end swiftly”.

Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz said that the migrant crisis in Calais proved that government efforts to curb illegal migration have not worked. He said: “The migrant crisis is not being solved in Calais by the £12m that the Government has spent so far. Putting a fence around Calais is not the answer.”

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