What’s Going On At The Channel Tunnel

The Channel Tunnel is a remarkable engineering feat. I’ve been through it several times. I couldn’t resist writing about it – and did in Frontiers:

Excerpt from "Frontiers," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Frontiers,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of media reporting about “migrants” (I use that word purely for shorthand description) from outside of the European Union (E.U.) who have been attempting (mostly nightly) to breach the tunnel entrance area’s security fence in France. They do so because they are usually attempting to stow aboard coaches or trucks – usually 18 wheelers, or lorries as the British say – that are waiting to be loaded onto the vehicle-carrying shuttle train to be transported to Britain. If they can somehow hide in one, they can get into Britain.

Apparently from places like Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, many reportedly see Britain as somewhere they have a chance to remain in Europe safely. They do not wish to attempt to seek that safety elsewhere in the E.U., or even in France where they currently are. Many of them are truly desperate and have been “living” just outside of the French town of Calais in a squatter camp that has become known as “the jungle.”

They need to get aboard vehicles, some way, somehow, because you can’t just walk through the tunnel. It is some 31 miles (50 kms) long. Chances are you’d be killed by a train, or other hazards, en route.

Channel Tunnel, on Wikipedia.
Channel Tunnel, on Wikipedia.

There are still ferries, but the trains are, in many respects, not only more convenient to use, but they’ve helped alter the mentality. Suddenly going between France and Britain doesn’t require a sea voyage. I’ve known Britons who even live in France and commute here to Britain using the tunnel.

When in France, driving to the tunnel’s terminal feels like arriving at an airport. There are excellent, well-signed approach roads. Because it constitutes an international border, you drive through British passport control barriers to reach the terminal. After that, once at the terminal there are restaurants and shopping. It is a curious experience – you are in France, but just a short train journey later you are disembarking inside Britain. (Or, vice-versa at the British terminal heading to France, after passing through the French “border.”)

France is part of the continental agreement that has done away with its internal international border controls: it is commonly called the Schengen area. However, the United Kingdom and Ireland are not members, which is why there is British passport control outside of the tunnel terminal. So the first manned frontier most of the “migrants” likely reach between landing somewhere in southern Italy, or Spain, is at that tunnel approach.

It’s unsurprising the tunnel has become a target for those looking to enter a Britain which otherwise, being an island, is essentially unreachable. Because the “border” was shifted some years ago so passport control became pre-boarding rather than after (which allows quicker off-loading of the trains), if “migrants” can jump the perimeter fencing, they can evade British passport control. If they can next sneak aboard vehicles, they can reach Britain because there are no additional “border formalities” after that. When the vehicle shuttle train arrives in England, vehicles drive right off onto an approach road feeding the M20 motorway, southeast of London.

Screen capture of the BBC web site.
Screen capture of the BBC web site.

This summer’s stow away attempts have merely been in larger numbers than before. There have long been “migrants” looking to slip into Britain by trying to hide in trucks and in coaches. Or under them.

On a return from France in 2011, on the shuttle we were parked next to a British school coach. Mid-tunnel a “migrant” was discovered clinging to the coach’s undercarriage. The kids were escorted off in a hurry and ushered to another train carriage. Everyone else in the carriage was told to stay in their vehicles. Security personnel tried to coax him out; but he refused to come out so they stood guard until the train reached Britain. At the terminal on the British side, we watched him – he appeared Somalian or East African, and in his twenties – taken into custody by U.K. border agents. It was upsetting to witness. But he had made it to Britain alive, where presumably he applied for political asylum.

Security is now being massively increased around the terminal perimeter in France. The long-term solution is unclear. Britain will not allow its border to be flouted. Meanwhile the Calais area has thousands of squatting, unknown foreigners, pressing against the coast looking to get to Britain.

This “migrant issue” is therefore creating increasing discord between Britain and France, two countries that otherwise – yes, really – normally work so quietly and harmoniously together that they usually have an official relationship as close as the one between the U.S. and Canada. Here in Britain, many blame French authorities for not maintaining proper security outside of the terminal perimeter. In France, many point the finger at British officials for “easier” asylum policies and laws allowing “easier” working in the “underground economy,” which makes Britain “a magnet” for “migrants.”

UPDATE: This morning, it is being reported on British radio that French humanitarian volunteers at “the jungle” near Calais say they have seen cars with British license plates. They claim to have witnessed “migrants” driven to near the tunnel perimeter. If true, that raises questions of UK-based people smugglers at work, or even UK legal residents or citizens driving across to France to try to assist “migrant” relatives to sneak aboard vehicles to enter Britain.

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.