France deploys riot police to bolster Calais security

AP News
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Posted: Jul 29, 2015 4:58 PM
France deploys riot police to bolster Calais security

CALAIS, France (AP) — The young Afghan has tried every single day for three months to get into the railway tunnel in Calais leading to England and what he hopes will be a better life. For him, like the dozens who appeared as darkness fell, Wednesday would be the same even if their numbers were immeasurably larger than even a week ago.

Undeterred by an influx of French riot police, a surveillance helicopter, or a ninth death this summer among the tens of thousands who attempt to cross the Channel, the migrants came in groups of a dozen or more. Men and women, some hiding their faces beneath bandannas, walked single file to sneak over a bent fence along the train tracks leading to the tunnel and ultimately to England.

One migrant was crushed to death and another was critically injured after being electrocuted in Paris on Wednesday alone.

"Every day there's a risk of life. People are losing their life. Accept them or reject them," said 31-year-old Nazirullah, who gave no surname. He said he arrived in Calais three months ago, speaking good English and claiming he had worked at the French Embassy back in Afghanistan.

Migrants pressing northward toward both countries are fleeing war, dictatorship and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. They tend to spend as little time as possible in their southern European landing spots, like Italy, where two ships unloaded on Wednesday, one carrying 435 passengers and 14 bodies and another with 692 migrants.

Many hit a dead end on the French side of the 50-kilometer (30-mile) Channel Tunnel, often referred to as the Chunnel, which is used by passenger trains and freight services to connect France and Britain.

British officials have increasingly sounded the alarm over a potential influx of foreigners. French officials, meanwhile, are concerned about the roughly 3,000 migrants in encampments called "the jungle" by the inhabitants of the largely lawless sites scattered haphazardly in the area.

It's not clear how many ever reach Britain, although at least a few succeeded this week in stowing aboard trains to make the 35-minute trip. Others were led away in the darkness, including a small group retrieved from a ditch by a single watchman wielding little more than a flashlight.

France dispatched 120 riot police immediately to Calais to bolster security that British authorities complain has been lax. France's government, meanwhile, called on Eurotunnel, the company that operates the tunnel, to step up its protection of the sensitive site.

By Wednesday night, a police helicopter hovered overhead and gendarmes in flak jackets turned back about two dozen.

Those caught on the French side are generally immediately freed to return to the camps and try again. Those caught on the in British side may be detained while their applications for asylum are considered. But many stay hidden aboard trucks as they roll off the trains until they stop for fuel, then hop off and vanish.

"Smugglers sell migrants the notion that Britain is the only El Dorado for a better life," said Emmanuel Agrius, the deputy mayor of Calais.

Eurotunnel defended its efforts, saying Wednesday it had blocked more than 37,000 attempts since January. Nine people have died trying since June, including the man crushed by a truck. An Egyptian trying to leap from a train roof and board the Eurostar at Paris' Gare du Nord train station was in critical condition after being electrocuted.

There were wildly conflicting totals of people involved in Wednesday's rush for the tunnel, ranging from 150 to as many as 1,200. But French authorities and the company agreed there had been about 2,000 attempts on each of two successive nights. British Home Secretary Theresa May said "a number" of migrants made it through overnight.

Attempts have been increasing exponentially as has the sense of crisis in recent weeks, spurred by new barriers around the Eurotunnel site, lack of access to the Calais port, labor strife that turned the rails into protest sites for striking workers, and an influx of desperate migrants.

"This exceptional migrant situation has dramatic human consequences," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. "Calais is a mirror of conflicts tearing up regions of the world."

About 25 migrants were seen getting off a public bus in Calais early Wednesday with a police officer who left them by the side of the road. Several said they were returning from a night of trying to cross the Channel.

"(We) come from train here and tomorrow, inshallah, try again in the train," said an Eritrean, using the Arabic expression for "God willing," who would not give his name as he planned further attempts to reach England.

The man killed overnight, believed to be a Sudanese man in his mid-20s, was crushed by a truck as he tried to stow away, Gilles Debove, a police union official told The Associated Press.

The delays caused mayhem for truckers on both sides of the Channel. Cargo trucks were backed up overnight in Calais for several kilometers (miles) leading to the loading zone, some of them stuck on a highway overpass above one of the many makeshift migrant camps. British police, meanwhile, turned parts of a highway near the British end of the tunnel into a giant parking lot. Passenger service was also delayed.

Eurotunnel called for help from both the French and British governments to protect the site and its 23-kilometer (14-mile) perimeter, which is far more dangerous for migrants than the now locked-down port had been, with small hills, basins of water and electrified shuttles for the trucks that can strike stowaways.

"It's become a phenomenon which is beyond our means," Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe said. "We're just a small transport company operating in a little corner of Europe."

Keefe said attacks on the fences are organized.

"This is very clearly criminal gangs or human traffickers who coordinate attacks on the fences," he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking during his visit to Singapore, described the crisis as "very concerning," but that there was no point in "pointing fingers of blame." Other British officials blamed the government in France, where officials said Eurotunnel also needed to do more.

The British government has agreed to provide an extra 7 million pounds ($11 million) of funding for measures to improve security at Calais. Until Wednesday, 60 French police covered the site, along with Eurotunnel security crews. The new arrivals, Debove said, would be a "burst of oxygen" to protecting the site, but he expected attempts to continue.

The Conservative Party lawmaker for Folkestone in southern England, Damian Collins, said French authorities needed to better secure their side.

"They have allowed people willingly to break into the Channel Tunnel site. I can't believe they would be that lax in protecting an airport or another sensitive facility," Collins said. "But that has happened constantly throughout the summer."

Many of the migrants disembarking in Italy on Wednesday were families, said Giovanna De Benedetto, spokeswoman for Save the Children in the port of Messina.

"Most of them (are) Syrians, who are traveling with their families so they have escaped from four years of conflict, children who simply want to play, to have a future, a dignified life in Europe as millions of children their age have."

May, the home secretary, said Britain was pressing for a bigger fence around the Calais railhead to stop people reaching the French end of the tunnel. She said Britain and France would work together to return people to their home countries and crack down on smugglers.

Ultimately, May added, "the answer to this problem is to ensure we are reducing the number of migrants who are trying to come from Africa across into Europe, that we break that link between making that dangerous journey, as it often is for people, and coming to settle in Europe."

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Lori Hinnant reported from Paris. Maggy Donaldson in Paris, Chris Den Hond in Calais, Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London, and Patricia Thomas in Messina, Italy, contributed.