Hard-up French take migrants to UK for cash

With the economic squeeze hitting hard some hard-up business owners and even students in northern France are turning to the lucrative, but highly risky trade of trafficking migrants across the English Channel to the UK, just to make ends meet.

Hard-up French take migrants to UK for cash
Syrian migrants demonstrate in Boulogne-sur-Mer over Britain's refusal to accept them. Photo: AFP

Authorities in northern France are growing concerned over the number of people who are tempted into becoming part-time people traffickers in order to earn a living.

French authorities have revealed that unemployed people in parts of northern France are being tempted into illegally ferrying migrants across the channel in their cars in exchange for cash – sometimes as much as €2,000 per person.

Thousands of migrants are camped out in the northern port cities of Calais and others are amassed in Boulogne-sur-Mer, from where they hope to make it across the Channel to the UK.

Normally their only way to cross the sea is by hiding out in the back, or underneath a truck, and hope that police who guard the ferry and Eurotunnel train terminals do not detect them.

But French police, under pressure from British authorities have been cracking down resulting in migrants making ever more desperate efforts to get across the Channel.

Some have even tried to make rafts to cross the Channel and others have died after being crushed under the wheels of lorries after they tried to hang on to the under carriage.

SEE ALSO: Migrant camps spring up in the heart of Paris

With most roads seemingly blocked traffickers have now turned their attention to local French people – and it appears there’s no shortage of volunteers looking to make some money.

According to Europe1 radio in the last year 80 people have been arrested and around 40 cases have been pursued through the courts.

French lawyer Emmanuelle Osmont, based in the port town of Boulogne sur Mer, told The Local on Wednesday that the traffickers preyed on locals in need of money.

“In the past the traffickers, who are often from Asia or Albania, recruited people around them to do these journeys, but the risks became too great. Then they turned to the truck drivers, but now its local French people who are suffering from financial difficulties,” Osmont said.

She said the traffickers, who are earning “millions each year”, are specifically targeting those French people living in poorer areas and trying to persuade them they are doing a good deed.

“We have even had two or three students up before the courts and they are targeting local business people who may be struggling to pay their bills or their taxes, because of the ongoing economic crisis” she said. “The mafia is benefiting from that.”

Osmont said local people are caught in a trap because they do not know the dangers involved and the risks they face.

“They do not know the legal risks in France if they are convicted, which could be a sentence between three and five years in prison,” she said.

“They don’t know the dangers to the migrants because they are often transported in the back of cars or vans and can go for two to three hours without getting any air.

“Then there’s the dangers from the trafficking gangs themselves who are often armed with Kalashnikovs. They are really stuck in the middle,” she added.

Osmont said authorities are now trying to get the message out to French people that no matter how much they need the money it is not worth taking the risk.

If locals are approached by traffickers they are being asked to report them directly to the French police, she said.

One of her clients, who has declined to be named, said he was tempted into the illegal activity after ending up near bankrupt and saw a people smuggler waving wads of cash in his face trying to recruit him.

“I was offered €2,000 per person. At first I hesitated but I needed the money and said yes,” he told Europe1.

“It’s a trap. Once you are in, it’s very difficult to get out. The recruiters are there all the time, every day, they put pressure on us,” he said.

“Physically, they are imposing. It’s a mafia, so you have to be careful. It’s very dangerous,” he added.

He succumbed to the temptation and made a first trip to England with a group of migrants stashed in his small van. He was arrested by British police on a second journey.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.