Yesterday’s post provided an overview of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) immigration to Europe.

Just as importantly, it includes an explanation of the truth behind the death of Aylan Kurdi, whose picture you will have seen within the past several days.

Today’s post looks at the Calais crisis, which is nearly 20 years old.

The Channel Tunnel opened to passenger traffic on November 14, 1994.

We travelled business class on Eurostar the following summer. My better half, our friends and I will remember it as one of our great train journeys as well as three lovely three in Paris.

That said, the tunnel was always a contentious project from the time it was first conceived in 1802. The threat of a Napoleonic invasion understandably caused the British to reject the plan because of national security issues.

Flash forward nearly two hundred years later. Only a few years after the Channel Tunnel opened, illegal immigrants and some asylum seekers began camping in Sangatte with the objective of entering the UK via the train, either freight or Eurostar.


The name Sangatte has its origins in Dutch and means ‘gap in the sand’ (Zandgat). However, with the increasing numbers of migrants, it became known popularly as ‘sans gate’, ‘without gate’.

By 1997, the informal yet growing migrant colony in Sangatte attracted international news attention. Two years later, the Red Cross opened a refugee centre in a disused warehouse to provide aid and establish some sense of order.

In 2001, migrants were mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran with others coming from African and Eastern European countries. By 2002, the centre accommodated 1,500 people at any one time, their goal being to get to the UK. Several riots took place during that two-year period. The result was that migrants began storming the fences to the tunnel. Others were able to procure legitimate Eurostar tickets although they had no legal identity papers.

Wikipedia explains (emphases mine):

Most illegal immigrants and would-be asylum seekers who got into Britain found some way to ride a freight train, but others used Eurostar. They would usually get on board trucks, which would then get onto the freight trains. In a few instances, groups of men claiming to be refugees were able to sneak into a tanker truck carrying liquid chocolate and managed to survive, though they did not enter the UK in one attempt.[134] Although the facilities were fenced, airtight security was deemed impossible; refugees would even jump from bridges onto moving trains. In several incidents people were injured during the crossing; others tampered with railway equipment, causing delays and requiring repairs.[135] Eurotunnel said it was losing £5m per month because of the problem.[136] A dozen refugees/illegal immigrants have died in crossing attempts.[132]

Eurotunnel sought an injunction twice against Sangatte. Local UK and French authorities did the same. Thus started the blame game between Britain and France:

The United Kingdom blamed France for allowing Sangatte to open, and France blamed the UK for its lax asylum rules and the EU for not having a uniform immigration policy.[136]

The European Commission stepped in and determined that, because of poor security, France was hindering the free transfer of goods. At that time 250 people a day were attempting to stowaway to Britain. A £5 million double fence was erected, which brought down the number of stowaways to zero.

However, Sangatte was too troublesome and costly to maintain long term. It frequently made newscasts and newspaper reports. At the end of 2002, France agreed to close the centre. In return, the UK took an agreed-upon number of refugees. Jacques Chirac was President and Nicolas Sarkozy Interior Minister at that time. Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Calais jungles

As soon as Sangatte closed, the first of what are termed the ‘jungles’ opened near the Port of Calais. Jungles open and close; they have no fixed location. The original was at a former landfill site. By 2015, it was one of nine Calais jungles.

French authorities have bulldozed some of them over the years, but the migrants find new sites. Living conditions are poor and life is tough. Some manage to locate abandoned warehouses where they set up squats, leaving tents behind.

Between 200 and 800 people live in each jungle. Most inhabitants are young men. Although the migrants still come from Afghanistan and Iraq, today, more have their origins in Syria, Darfur, Eritrea, Sudan and the Horn of Africa.

A British television documentary said that the migrants are segregated for living purposes by nationality. However, that does not prevent fights, sometimes violent, between different national or cultural groups. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. Mosques predominate as houses of worship, although this year a church is being erected.

Pity the lorry drivers and business owners

Calais jungle residents are hardly quiet and patient, although they are, in effect, supplicants. They will stop at nothing to get across the English Channel.

In addition to the Channel Tunnel crossings, many also break into lorries headed for the UK.

UK lorry drivers can be fined £2,000 per stowaway found in their vehicles. This makes small hauliers extremely vulnerable. Each driver must check his truck to ensure no one is in the trailer.

This summer, shipments of fresh produce and urgent medicines had to be rejected because of human contamination such as urine and faeces.

Going back further, a 2009 article in The Mail on Sunday reported:

at a truckers’ cafe the owner is at his wits’ end. He has had knives pulled on him so many times by the clandestins, as they are known in these parts, that he is ready to throw in the towel altogether.

Other businessmen have already done so. The caravan showroom is now boarded up, while a yard once piled high with second-hand pallets lies empty – stripped bare by the migrants.

The problems along this nondescript street are down to geography. It backs on to an area of open land where the people of Calais used to take the air, to walk their dogs, to picnic in the summer.

Not any more. Today it is a no-go zone known simply as The Jungle – a sprawling shanty town that grows by the day and which has become the latest focus in this sorry and seemingly unending saga.

Two months after that report, The Telegraph described the confused and tense situation in Calais. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) advised all migrants intending to go to Britain to have their claims applications sorted out in advance, otherwise they would return to France and risk deportation. Even then, migrants were paying smugglers £1,000 for a safe passage. The UNHCR was and is working with the French agency Terre d’Asile, which is helping migrants in the jungle. Meanwhile, Calais’s mayor — from then to the present day — Natacha Bouchart blamed, as she does now, the UK for lax immigration policies:

She said the UK government’s policies were “imposing” migrants on the town, costing the local economy millions.

Mrs Bouchart even suggested that border controls should be torn down altogether, allowing migrants to get to the UK as quickly as possible.

In September 2009, it seemed to most people that the problem had ended when French police demolished the jungle — after Ramadan had ended, of course. But, no, others existed.

In March 2010, the Anglo-French co-ordination centre was created. This cost UK taxpayers £15 million and was designed to be a high-tech means of surveillance and information sharing between the two countries. The then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to repatriate more illegal immigrants in return for British financing of the project. However, the British had their doubts even then. Whereas the UK had sent 23 chartered flights returning illegal immigrants to Afghanistan, France had sent only three.

Latest documentaries

I watched two documentaries on the Calais crisis recently. One was on Channel 4 and the other on ITV.

The ITV programme, part of the Tonight series shown on Fridays, was sympathetic to the migrants. That said, the presenter also interviewed lorry drivers who talked about contaminated goods, especially produce from France and Spain. One owner said he was not sure how much longer he could stay in business. There were times this year when he lost between £10,000 and £20,000 a shipment because of what the stowaways left behind.

A lorry driver said he was on the edge of his nerves between checking his lorry and crossing the Port of Calais. He fears being ganged up on by a group of illegal immigrants with knives or other weapons. He asked, ‘What can I do then?’

The presenter followed some of the migrants, at least one of whom managed to reach the UK. This twenty-something man was from Afghanistan. His brother, working in London, paid to have him smuggled to the capital. The brother wired the money to the smuggler. The new arrival was in the process of having his asylum claim processed. This begged the question why the brother did not apply through legal channels for his brother’s asylum.

Another man ended up in Germany and was shown drinking beer, very pleased with himself.

In the Channel 4 documentary, Breaking into Britain: the Lorry Jumpers, a sympathetic presenter filmed the jungle for a year, befriending and following some of its inhabitants. A DigitalSpy television forum recaps the main parts of the show rather aptly. Given that many of DigitalSpy‘s participants are left-of-centre, it was surprising to read their responses to the programme. Many had little sympathy for the stowaways’ plight and were unnerved that they could obtain housing and benefits within days of their arrival.

The programme was shocking to see. On a logical level, yes, I’d read reports for months. On the other, to see how generous the British system is and how soon it kicks in was an eye-opener.

Everyone interviewed wanted to come to the UK for housing and money: free stuff. Sure, they all wanted to notionally work and study. One wonders how true that is in all cases.

The presenter interviewed migrants about what they hoped to do in the UK. One said he wanted to be an accountant. Another replied, ‘Heh. That’s a good one’, as if to say such an answer would get him anywhere.

Another young man was staying with friends in a disused warehouse near the Calais jungle. He was so hostile towards the French that he said, ‘If the police come here, they will die.’ Ominous, to say the least.

The presenter smuggled himself into the back of a British lorry with two other illegal immigrants. Fortunately, the lorry driver made a thorough inspection before setting off and discovered all three men, ordering them out immediately, ‘including you, press man’.

Then there was the curious case of Fatima from Sudan. She could not speak a word of English. She was tough — fearless, actually — and often tried storming the fences on her own at night. In the end, she met up with two other migrants. Within days, she was in the UK. She now lives in Liverpool and has a taxpayer-funded flat and allowance. She still cannot speak a word of English. Now that she is here, she says it was wrong of her to enter illegally, but one can notionally repent once one has achieved one’s goal. The rough-tough girl posed in a comely fashion on her balcony talking to the interviewer via an interpreter.

A notional Christian ended up in Glasgow, also being funded by the taxpayer. He waved his Bible around and, when asked about his questionable entry method, got tetchy with the interviewer and told him, ‘Jesus said not to judge others until you know yourself!’ Well, that’s us told, then.

These stories left me thinking that a number of these people must have police records, convictions and/or prison terms behind them which causes them to enter illegally rather than through proper channels. If that is the case, which it must be for some, we must all be on our guard.