Calais migrants: ‘It’s becoming more violent’

Officials in Calais, despite a series of new security measures, have made little progress in stemming the flow of migrants trying desperately to reach the UK. In fact, the situation is becoming more violent for all involved and disruptive for those who must use the port.

Calais migrants: 'It's becoming more violent'
The migrant crisis in Calais is becoming increasingly violent and disruptive. Photo: AFP

The migrants huddle on sand dunes in the French port of Calais, monitoring police further down who are poised to stop them if they attempt to board trucks heading to Britain, their coveted Eldorado.

The northern port, where millions of passengers pass through every year, is struggling to stem a steady tide of asylum-seekers desperately trying to cross the Channel, despite a slew of recent measures including tighter security and

"They are becoming more violent and aggressive and we have to use tear gas more and more," says a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some 1,400 to 1,500 migrants who have mainly come from eastern Africa via Italy roam the city and its surroundings, sleeping on sand dunes or in squats, fed by volunteers, waiting for an opportunity to get to Britain which they see
as having a favourable asylum policy.

Many are from Eritrea, which has been under investigation by the UN Human Rights Council for alleged abuses including extrajudicial executions, torture and forced military conscription that can last decades.

Others are from Sudan, like 27-year-old Nasir who took part in a recent demonstration in Calais against the police crackdown.

"Why are we prevented from going to Britain after coming all the way up here?", he asked.

'More and more problems'

Truckers crossing the Channel complain that the asylum-seekers are getting more brazen in their attempts to hitch an illegal ride.

"The moment the trucks stop, the migrants scramble aboard, even in broad daylight," says Arnaud Dequidt, a director at transport company Carpentier.

At a petrol station's parking lot near the port, a group of Africans loiter near trucks waiting to make the crossing, as the drivers smoke in the sun.

"A month ago, I found three of them hiding on the axle of my truck," says Costas, a 53-year-old Greek trucker who goes to Britain every week with a cargo of yoghurt.

His peers complain that there are too few police.

"Every week there are more and more problems," one of them says, without giving his name.

One Slovenian truck driver, Frank Ravnjak, has been stuck in Calais since September 3, when British customs officials found 16 illegal migrants hidden in his truck.

That was the day when more than a 100 migrants forced their way onto disembarkation lanes in the port, forcing crew to lift the ramp of a ferry before the asylum-seekers could reach the ship.

"I do not know when I will be able to return home," said Ravnjak, who says he has been slapped with a 20,000-euro ($25,000) fine. His truck has been confiscated and the cargo of tortellini destroyed.

Fences to the rescue?

The problem in Calais is not new, and illegal camps of migrants have sprung up in the area since French authorities closed down the infamous Sangatte immigrant detention centre in 2002.

But the crisis has spiralled, prompting the city's mayor Natacha Bouchart to threaten to shut down the port entirely in protest at London's perceived lack of action or help over the problem.

Britain has since offered to send over the strong security fences used at a NATO meeting last week in Wales.

British Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said Sunday the donated fencing could replace and enlarge the "inadequate" infrastructure currently in place.

He also warned that Britain was "no soft touch when it comes to illegal immigration," despite the popular view of many immigrants that they would have better chances of asylum there.

French authorities have already arrested around 7,500 illegal immigrants trying to cross the Channel this year, and security has been ramped up.

Parking lots for trucks are now ringed by razor wire and patrolled at night by guards and dogs trained to detect humans.

One of the sites with a capacity to hold 210 trucks is illuminated day and night.

Olivier Carre, who is in charge of the lot, said the police's response to dealing with the problem was less than perfect.

"Last week, a truck entered with seven clandestine migrants. We called the police and they made them walk to the roundabout at the end of the road and

went off," he said, sighing.

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