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FRANCE – UK

Migrant dies in Channel Tunnel between France and Britain

Thousands of migrants in the French city of Calais have relocated to a shantytown known as the "New Jungle", where they wait in hopes of reaching the United Kingdom.
Thousands of migrants in the French city of Calais have relocated to a shantytown known as the "New Jungle", where they wait in hopes of reaching the United Kingdom. AFP / Philippe Huguen
4 min

French authorities were investigating the death of a migrant found in the tunnel under the English Channel after attempting to cross from France to the United Kingdom on Tuesday. The rare event comes as numbers of migrants in the French port city of Calais continue to climb, as do their attempts to cross the Channel and the cries of alarm from those involved.

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French border police told media they thought the man was struck by a train as he tried to climb onto one of its carrier wagons.

Officials suspected he was part of a group discovered by security forces as they tried to make their way into the United Kingdom.

“Following the discovery of migrants on a freight shuttle early in the morning, the shuttle was immediately stopped,” read a statement issued by state authorities for the Pas-de-Calais region.

“During an investigation by border police, a deceased migrant was found in the tunnel.”

Eurotunnel officials closed off one of the six sections of the passageway so an investigation could be carried out, leading to delays in road and rail traffic on both sides of the Channel.

Little was known about the man’s identity or origins, but most of the migrants in Calais in recent months have been from Eritrea, Sudan or Syria.

Deaths in the tunnel are rare, but Tuesday’s incident as well as another on 26 June reflected increasing attempts on the part of migrants to reach Calais by sneaking onto lorries loaded onto trains.

“Groups are entering the tunnel area and trying to go to the trains directly, which is dangerous because of the speed,” Philippe Wannesson, a human rights activist who works with the migrants, told RFI.

“It does not usually happen so often because there are security checks, but now people try to go directly onto the trains.”

Migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom after fleeing war zones or dictatorships have been coming to Calais since the late 1990s.

There have generally been a few hundred at any given time, but the numbers have soared over the past two years, and there are currently thought to be between 3,000 and 4,000.

Border officials have also changed the way trucks are inspected as they prepare to cross the Channel, meaning they often advance slowly as they approach the port or the tunnel, and migrants attempt to board them directly.

Strike actions by workers with the French company MyFerryLink over the past two weeks have made for even slower traffic and more confrontations between drivers and migrants, but shipping groups say the situation has been getting worse for some time.

“We’ve seen an escalation in the problem over the last year, and the industrial action in Calais has certainly exacerbated it over the last couple weeks,” says Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Hauling Association in Britain.

“Drivers get out of their trucks to try and move migrants away, and then are surrounding by 10 or 20 migrants at a time,” Burnett says, citing reports of drivers who described being threatened with metal bars, knives and, in one instance, a gun.

For Burnett, the short-term solution is for French authorities to ramp up security.

“This isn’t just for UK drivers but European drivers as well who are coming through Calais, whether in the Eurotunnel or on a ship,” he explains. “There needs to be more police actively stopping migrants from entering vehicles. If the French gendarmes can’t do that, we’re saying the French army should be drafted in to ensure there are greater numbers of people to actually manage the situation on the ground.”

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and his British counterpart Theresa May have agreed to boost combined funding efforts to improve security around the points of passage.

But with Britain tightly guarding the border and France offering little immediate accommodation to the migrants, there appears to be few real ideas in terms of resolving the situation in Calais.

In practice, French security forces play a game of cat-and-mouse with the migrants, most recently evicting them from camps and squats in the city centre between April and June.

Most of the migrants relocated to a shantytown of tarps and plastic bags they built on a semi-forested industrial zone seven kilometres from the city centre, which has been dubbed “Jungle II” and “The New Jungle” in reference to a previous camp dismantled in 2009.

“Local charities cannot manage to help so many people because the place itself is difficult to reach, just outside of the city,” explains Wannesson. “The problem is it’s not possible to provide materials for shelters, tents, blankets or food for so many people. So, their living conditions are getting worse.”

Rights groups expect it will continue in this direction over the summer, estimating that up to 50 new people will arrive in the camp every day, and that there could be an additional 2,000 over the coming months.

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