Migrants in Calais
© Antonio1962

After a three-month winter hiatus, senior French police sources yesterday warned that the number of migrant attempts to cross the Channel to the UK was likely to significantly increase.

And the law enforcement workforce around Calais was described as seriously demoralised.

Gilles Debove, deputy secretary general of SGP Police Unit Force, the labour union that represents French police officers, told the Freight Security and Migrant Conference in London “officials are neutralised” by the sheer number of migrants they have had to deal with, but “more than anything, they have lost their motivation”.

He said the number of people employed by police in Calais amounted to 540 – including civilian clerical staff – which he described as “completely insufficient” as “worse was to come” as France remained in a state of high alert after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

This had reduced  the number of police capable of dealing with migrant attacks – and further reductions would take place in the summer as more officers would be needed for the Euro 2016 football championships.

Mr Debove said attacks on vehicles had soared, with 55,000 migrants discovered in trucks last year compared with 30,000 in 2014 – although he qualified this by adding that this did not mean 55,000 migrants, as many had made repeated attempts to cross the Channel in a freight vehicle.

And he added that part of the reason for the near-doubling of attempts was extended strike action and blockades around Calais last summer, which had left parked trucks” sitting ducks” for migrants.

“There is a direct correlation between the number of migrants storming trucks and traffic being at a standstill,” said Mr Debove.

He also noted a change in the behaviour and demographics of migrants: the wealthier able to pay people-smugglers for a passage to the UK largely leaving the infamous ‘jungle camp’ to be replaced by large numbers of migrants from east and west Africa.

“The migrant population is changing – it is more and amore Africans who are very poor, and the only way they feel they can succeed in boarding a truck is by storming the vehicles in large numbers – unfortunately, a consequence of that is an increase in the use of violence,” he said.

Ports across France’s northern seaboard have been investing heavily to prevent increasing numbers of migrants accessing freight areas.

Calais has invested around €15m – partly funded by the UK government – in 30km of new security fencing, 129 CCTV cameras and dog patrol units, and next month will open a 7ha ‘secure parking area’ within the port, capable of holding 800 trucks. Construction has also begun on another 200-truck-capacity buffer zone near the port’s control area.

Nearby Dunkirk appears to have engaged in a “scorched earth policy” of cutting back vegetation around the port that could hide migrants’ tents. Officials from both ports have a policy of dismantling tents whenever they or local police find them.

“The nearest camp is now 15km away, which at its worst has about 2,000 people in it,” said Dunkirk harbourmaster Eric Sorel.

Dunkirk also accelerated development of its new ferry terminal which opened last month. The design of the older facility meant that during delays, truck queues would stretch several miles into the hinterland, with the stationary vehicles perfect target for migrant attacks.

Mr Sorel said: “We now have parking spaces for 500 lorries after the control area.”

The Belgian port of Zeebrugge, a major container transhipment hub, also has several direct ferry links with the UK, including a daily passenger service to Hull. It had seen increasing levels of migrant activity – 1,535 intrusions between December and last month 2016 – but overall, activity has tailed off in the first quarter of the year.

“We don’t know whetehr this is due to our efforts or as a result of some wider trend,” Zeebrugge Port Authority MD Joachim Coens told delegates.

Like Dunkirk, Zeebrugge removed vast tracts of trees and other vegetation around the port and pulled down camps as soon as they were discovered.

The Belgian government appears to be going further, however. It is debating changes to its penal code that would allow migrant intruders to be prosecuted. Currently, when would-be stowaways are caught, they are simply told to leave the country.

“This means that once police release them they simply come back to the port and try to get on the next vessel,” Mr Coens said. “If the new law comes into force in mid-May, intruders could be fined up to €1,000 and face a year in jail.”

Another proposal expected to be tabled could give maritime security personnel the right to inspect trucks and trailers, and authorise them to use dogs.

“This would improve security but is more difficult to get passed because it involves quite a lot of jurisdictional discussions with police,” Mr Coens added.

Delegates heard there had been fewer refugees coming out of Turkey and North Africa in recent months, as the winter weather made sea crossings especially hazardous. But as summer nears, levels could surge once more.

And as a host of central European countries have moved to shut down the Western Balkan route, and EU-Turkey talks have looked to limit the flow of Syrian refugees out of that country, the sea route out of Libya is expected to become more popular, with migrants looking to get into the EU, with Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa the initial destinations.

David Attard, head of maritime security at Malta Transport Authority, said the island was expecting as many as 800,000 arrivals in the next year.

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