Eurostar nightmare: ‘We can hardly complain’

The Local's Oliver Gee was one of thousands of passengers stranded for hours on six Eurostar trains that became blocked when migrants broke through security. He says it's hard to complain given the hardship of those that caused the chaos.

Eurostar nightmare: 'We can hardly complain'
Passengers on a Eurostar train plunged into darkness, but should we really complain? Photo: Simon Gentry

It was almost a relief to hear that the train would turn back to London.

We'd been sitting on a Paris-bound Eurostar train somewhere in the south east of the UK for around four hours. Every half an hour or so, the same voice would come over the loudspeaker to apologize for the inconvenience and to say police were still working with “people on the tracks” in Calais.

I'm sure anyone who had seen the front page of a newspaper in the UK that day – or indeed any day in the past few months – would have known that the conductor was referring to migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria who had been living in the Jungle 2 camp in Calais and were trying to sneak into the UK.

On the train, passengers were quite understanding. There were a few sighs and groans with each announcement – even a few sarcastic laughs as the delays continued.

Most people were quiet. Many slept. Perhaps many realized that it wasn't worth complaining about delays when there were people not far away who were literally dying to get the chance to cross the same Channel Tunnel.

While no doubt many did, there wasn't anyone cursing migrants in our carriage.

I spoke to some other passengers about what exactly could be happening on the tracks to prompt hours of police intervention. Had the migrants stormed the tunnel? Or were just a few people in hiding and the rail authorities were playing it safe until they were found.

There were no electricity sockets in my carriage and my phone soon died. There went the entertainment, the clock, the news. Others had the same problems, evidently, as passengers soon marched the aisles with phone and charger in their hands. We could only wait.

More announcements came: “We're offering free water in carriage 5” and “If there's a doctor on board please come to carriage 3”. Some passengers joked about whether we would sleep on the train or whether we would starve first. 

And eventually, the final and perhaps most predictable announcement – we were going back to London.

The strangest thing for me was that considering Eurostar authorities had hours of notice that the train had stopped, then at least an hour of notice that a train load of people would be arriving in London at 1am, they didn't do anything to let us know about where we could stay, whether we would be reimbursed for the trip, or how we were going to get to Paris.

After going through passport control in London, the maddening crowd descended on one poor woman at St Pancras who was surrounded by a cacophony of complaints.

One Frenchman was yelling so aggressively that others held him back. She appeared to be solely reponsible for giving information and she looked scared as the crowd shouted.

Others took pictures of the mob, others edged closer to hear the woman. Some – perhaps the wisest of us all – ran into the streets to snap up nearby available hotel rooms.

Whispers passed around that we'd be reimbursed for a hotel room up to the value of £150 and the crowd dispersed in search of beds.

The next day, after a long hold on the Eurostar information line, I learned that we were also allowed £50 of food per person and taxi rides up to £40 each way to a hotel. All this was only confirmed afterwards. But appreciated.

The first available train back to Paris will get me in at 5pm on Thursday, one day late. I could almost have flown to Australia in this time.

Other stories have since emerged of passengers on another Eurostar train that was stuck in Calais, where the conditions were described as “horrendous” as the lights and the air conditioning was shut off.

Nadine Hickey told the BBC the experience was “one of the worst” of her life, saying passengers had been “locked in a train, in the dark, with migrants knocking on the window”.

“We had migrants on top of the carriage and they had to come round and manually bolt us in,” she said after arriving at St Pancras.

“We were in there in the dark for over four hours with no communication,” she added.

Getting directly affected by the migrant crisis may be irritating, but you can't really complain. At least we are allowed on the train in the first place, and given a seat rather than trying to cling to the roof.


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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.