BY: ELAINE GANLEY
African migrants are ambushing trucks, jumping on vacationers’ cars and fighting over turf, new tactics in an increasingly desperate struggle to cross the English Channel to Britain — the land they see as their Eldorado. Pouring in at an ever-faster pace, they are overwhelming police in the northern French town of Calais and fuelling a far-right backlash.
Calais officials in turn have hunkered down in crisis mode, increasing security and making threats to Britain, which they accuse of not helping shoulder the burden. Mayor Natacha Bouchart vowed last week to shut down the port if British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t visit Calais to assess the problem.
City officials say at least 1,300 migrants, mainly from Africa — Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia — and Afghanistan, are now in Calais. They fear the number could rise to 5,000 by the year end. That represents a small portion of those flooding into Europe — most via Italy, where some 60,000 have arrived so far this year — but those looking to go to Britain end up in Calais, a city of 75,000 with soaring joblessness. “Calais is stuck in a global problem that nobody wants to deal with,’’ said Philippe Mignonet, deputy mayor for security.
Last week, about 100 migrants stormed the well-guarded port, climbing over towering fences to rush security guards, an invasion that forced one ferry loading vehicles to temporarily pull up its ramp. Migrants regularly pelt freight trucks headed to the port with stones to slow them down so they can hop into the back, police say.
“They’re attacking,’’ said Gilles Debove, who acts as a police spokesman. Increasingly, he said, migrants pretend to faint in the street at a red light or throw road signs in truckers’ paths to slow them down.
“We are going to counter-attack,’’ port chief Jean-Marc Puissesseau said. “Because the behaviour of migrants is completely new, we have to adapt ourselves.’’ The port currently pays 15 million euros a year to security personnel to keep migrants out.
The police presence in Calais has been strengthened, including with dogs for night patrols. But truck drivers remain wary. They must pay hefty fines in Britain if caught with migrants hiding in their cargo holds. Dincer Ozdemir, a Turkish trucker, said 13 migrants were once caught in his truck and he had to pay a 150 euro fine.
Tensions have simmered for years in Calais, seen as the gateway to a promised land with generous benefits for refugees. Officials on both sides of the Channel say that image of Britain is a “myth’’ perpetuated by smugglers. City officials want Britain to help shoulder the financial burden since Calais is a transit stop, and to revise a 2003 accord that puts the onus for stopping migrants on France.
Tensions are nearing a boiling point among some Calais residents as pro- and anti-migrant blocks form, feeding extremist sentiments, a reflection of the challenges faced around Europe as nationalist, anti-immigrant movements gain support amid economic woes.
In May, the city bulldozed makeshift migrant camps in the downtown area, forcing the travellers to relocate their wood-and-tarp tents to an industrial zone near the port. Conditions are deplorable, but hope endures. Only 36 km in a 90-minute ferry ride separates the migrants from their dream.
Josef Faris, a 23-year-old Eritrean who wants to study accounting in Britain, took a boat from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. He has spent months in Calais trying to sneak across the English Channel. “I know that one day I’ll do it,’’ he said, “and after that I’ll have all my dreams.’’