Working visit to Calais: Humanitarian emergency demands drastic measures

27 January 2015

Working visit to Calais: Humanitarian emergency demands drastic measures

On Friday 23 January SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong, together with staffer Bart Linssen, paid a working visit to the Eurotunnel complex in Calais. Although the situation in Calais is alarming, new facilities have been built for trucks, and from the end of this year drivers will be able to count on complete checks being carried out on the French side, should they wish to have such a check carried out. This will mean that they no longer need worry about stowaways and the fines imposed when they are detected.

The situation in the seaport of Calais is, however, far from being resolved. If things get more difficult for would-be migrants at one place, they will move on, seeking another crossing. In the Netherlands too, for example in the Hook of Holland, pressure is increasing. In the short-term improved controls prior to the passage over the border can help - though these should continue to be voluntary for the drivers – it’s clear that the structural problem of unauthorised immigration into the United Kingdom must be addressed. For this reason the entire European asylum and immigration policy must be changed.

The visit was organised with the trade sheet Truckstar in response to complaints from Dutch truck drivers. They try in every way to prevent would-be migrants from hiding in their lorries in order to travel to the UK, but it’s impossible completely to avoid this. They complain of inadequate cooperation from the French authorities, while the British are very quick to fine all drivers who fail to detect stowaways.

Because on the previous day there had been a fire in the tunnel, part of it was closed off and we could see with our own eyes the lengthy queues at the terminal’s entrance. Queues make it easier for the would-be migrants, as although most drivers try not to have to stop before the secure zone, long queues can make this unavoidable. We saw that in broad daylight numerous people were running over the road in search of a truck into which they could climb. Last year the number of confrontations between drivers and migrants increased enormously, with migrants becoming more aggressive and the drivers themselves more often resorting to violence.

There is clearly a humanitarian emergency occurring. We saw the migrants’ camps where people are sleeping in tiny tents in the freezing cold. These are often people who already have the appalling journey across the Mediterranean Sea behind them and for whom the crossing to England must seem a piece of cake. Yet it’s still terrifying to see that people will hang from the chassis of a lorry, or hide in freezer trucks. No figures were available regarding the number of accidents, but a piece of cake the crossing certainly is not.

The fact is that Calais produces only losers: drivers who, despite their best efforts, find themselves being fined; migrants who put their lives in jeopardy in search of a better existence; and the authorities, who feel powerless.

In the short term improvements are indeed possible. The French gave us a guarantee that drivers could always count on police support within fifteen minutes, should they be faced with aggression. All they have to do is call 112 or 17. At the Eurotunnel a new, large, well-constructed secure parking area has been made available following the first, voluntary controls. The access roads have been widened and the CO2 checks, during which in the case of most lorries it’s possible to see whether people are on board, have been reinforced, so that now all trucks can be subject to controls, putting an end to the situation where drivers are waved through without the desired CO2 check having been carried out.

During the visit we received a great deal of assistance from Martin Nikkelen Kuijper, a Dutch driver who had travelled to Calais from Twente in the Netherlands especially for our trip. In the discussions with the French authorities he was able to confront them with his own experiences, which was illuminating all round. The British continue to operate independently and to follow a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Drivers who, despite the checks, transport stowaways, can expect to pay several thousand euros in fines.

Because in the Benelux countries and France there are many more possible crossing points, a global approach is needed. The control facilities in other port towns, as well as in the port of Calais, should be tightened up, so that drivers who want to avail themselves of the service can have their trucks checked in any of those places and then go immediately into a secure zone where they can park up and wait for their crossing. That would demand an enormous effort from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but it would avoid the drivers becoming the victims of what in essence are failing asylum and immigration policies.

In the longer term fundamental solutions will have to be found. This year the European Parliament will be giving a great deal of attention to the functioning of the European asylum system, in particular the situation in the Mediterranean Sea, which is out of control. It’s there that the source of the problem can be found, with a country such as Italy trying to avoid having to process applications for asylum and encouraging asylum seekers to travel, without authorisation, to other member states. In France it has been made difficult to apply for asylum and the process after doing so is extremely long and drawn out before it is dealt with. That’s why many people want to travel on to the UK, which is known to have shorter procedures.

For years the SP has been advocating a regulation to the effect that on the exterior borders of the EU, for example in Italy and Greece, European asylum centres would be established, centres in which the initial processing of asylum seekers would take place. This would at least limit people having to travel illegally to other countries. At the same time France, as well as all other member states, must ensure the rapid processing of the asylum applications which they receive, and decent reception accommodation for asylum seekers. This would remove the worst of the pressure. Should, despite these reforms, many asylum seekers wish to go to the UK, for example if they have family or friends there, or come from former British colonies, then an agreement must be made with the British about a more flexible policy: on a voluntary basis the UK could decide to process such asylum applications. By making use of these possibilities, a great deal of suffering could be avoided.

Only an all-embracing approach can offer a solution to the humanitarian emergency in Calais and other port towns. Such an approach will take some time to develop, however. Until this is achieved sound voluntary controls and the revision of the British policy on fines are needed. The SP’s European Parliament group will both be putting questions on these matters to the European Commission and contacting those governments which are involved. We will not allow our drivers to be the victims of failed policies.


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