In the port city of Calais in northern France, tensions are running high. At night, groups of desperate migrants try to cross through the 31-mile tunnel under the English Channel by vaulting over fencing, stowing away on trucks and hiding on shuttles headed for England. Most have fled persecution and violence beyond Europe’s borders but they now play a deadly game of cat and mouse with guards and riot police. On Sunday night, a French police union reported another 1,700 intrusions by migrants into the railway terminal; they said some 700 people were restrained or physically removed from the area.
On the other side of the narrow strait separating France from England, the British government is also in crisis mode. Amid a recent surge in migrant deaths at Calais – at least nine people have died since June from electrocutions, falls or being crushed by lorries as they try to cross the English Channel – the crisis has evolved into a political blame game.
Though British Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to “point fingers of blame” at the French, senior members of his Conservative Party have accused France of willingly allowing people to break into the Channel Tunnel site and called for them to invest more in security. Meanwhile, French politicians and aid organizations voice their frustration with Britain’s reliance on Calais to reinforce border security.
“The British government needs to be much, much less hypocritical in the way it views the situation. England takes very few refugees compared to other countries in Europe. We must push the British government to take its share of responsibility,” says Emmanuel Agius, the deputy mayor of Calais. Speaking to TIME in his office in the impressive redbrick town hall that dominates Calais’ main square, Agius is visibly wearied by Calais’ struggle to deal with migrants over the past twelve years since British officials began carrying out border checks in the French port, rather than on British soil.
“The town of Calais is suffocating because of these 3,000 migrants,” he says. Despite the fact that the migrants live in camps on the edge of Calais, Agius says their presence has a significant impact on tourism and the economic development on the town and its 75,000 residents. “More and more tourists and investors are asking themselves why they would want to stay in Calais,” he says. “The municipality has struggled with the same problem for twelve years, trying to make sure the town prospers and is attractive to tourists. Every day, the town’s image is dragged down a little.”
Calais’ local politicians say the city cannot afford to be neglected. Some 10 million passengers pass through the ferry port each year and an additional 21 million people travel through the undersea Channel Tunnel on high-speed trains.
Businesses in both France and the U.K. have suffered the effect of police measures imposed to manage disruption from the migrants’ incursions combined with industrial action by French workers. Until Saturday evening one of Britain’s main highways was blocked with more than 4,500 vehicles queuing to cross to France. Britain’s Freight Transport Association estimated the cost to the U.K. economy could be as much as $390 million a day because of delays and spoiled goods. A similar number of trucks also waited on the French side.
Prime Minister David Cameron held an emergency meeting of his crisis response committee on Friday, promising that extra resources would be sent to France. Britain has pledged another $11 million for resources and surveillance equipment in Calais. Yet Agius, Calais’ deputy mayor, says that such an approach is unlikely to work, telling TIME that “all the barriers in the world, unfortunately, will not address the problem.”
Calais’ migrants agree. Fight the border! declares graffiti near the Calais port. On one road sign, the arrow pointing left towards the English Channel glittering in the distance has been altered to read JUSTICE. Agius says the eventual solution is in the hands of European leaders who need to work together to reallocate migrants and to intervene at the root cause of the problem. In the meantime, migrants will continue to come to Calais in pursuit of their dream to reach Britain and risk their lives in the endeavor.
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