In scenes described by ferry operators as “not unusual”, dozens of illegal immigrants broke through security fencing and dodged gun wielding policemen in a bid to board Britain-bound cross-channel ferries at the French port of Calais last night.
The immigrants pushed forwards in two waves. Firstly a group of around 90 – 100 men made a break for the ferries by breaking through a gate and scaling fences, but were thwarted by the ferry crew raising the ramp before they could reach it. A short time later, 150 migrants made a second attempt, again scaling fences and dodging policemen, some of whom were armed with guns, before making a break to the ferry’s car ramp. They were held off by ferry staff turning fire hoses at them and were prevented a second time from boarding by the raising of the ramp.
According to the BBC, the police then escorted the men off site. The ferry was delayed for around 45 minutes whilst searches were carried out to ensure that none of the men had managed to come on board. Lorries in the queue were also re-scanned to ensure that no one had managed to stowaway.
A spokesman for British owned P&O Ferries who had a ship in Calais at the time confirmed that a “huge intrusion” had taken place, but indicated that these incidents were “not unusual”, although typically involve fewer people.
Witness John Bailey told the BBC that he and his fellow passengers “were shocked to see a huge crowd of migrants on the main access road who were being guarded by about 20 French police – some armed with sub-machine guns.
“This was clearly no deterrent as they obviously ran past them into the port, which must have been a distance of about a mile.”
“The migrants were escorted back down the ramp by the police and led out of the port, shouting at some people in the vehicle queue,” he added.
The incident comes a day after the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, had threatened to close the port unless Britain helped to control the migrants. She acknowledged that such a move would be illegal, confirming that she had not discussed the proposal with French interior minister Bernard Cazaneuve as she was aware that he would not be able to support it.
However, she is adamant that the population of the French town has been “taken hostage” as the immigrants see Britain as “an Eldorado” with a relaxed attitude towards immigrants. Ms Bouchart hit back against British calls for better security at the port, insisting that the British had no right to make demands until they start to contribute toward the annual €10 million cost.
A Border Force spokesman said: “Security at the UK border is our priority, and we continue to strengthen it to stop those who have no right to enter the UK.
“We have already made improvements to security at Calais, working with the French authorities. We have, for instance, upgraded vehicle scanning equipment with the latest technology to detect people hiding in lorries and tankers and have increased the number of body detection dogs stationed at Calais.
“We will continue to bolster security, and the Home Secretary met the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve last week to discuss this important work.”
Official figures state that 1,300 illegal immigrants are camped out in Calais, attempting to cross the channel by any means. Charity groups put the figure as high as 2,000, with a further 20 arriving daily. The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, Syria and Sudan, are living in shanty town nicknamed “Jungle 2″, in abandoned buildings, and in the surrounding countryside.
A Red Cross facility housing the 2,000 migrants was shut down in 2002. Britain accepted hundreds of the migrants living there, and others were forced to move to a camp dubbed The Jungle. That camp was razed to the ground in 2009. In recent months the police have once again been active in disbanding settlements, causing tensions to rise.
Meanwhile in the UK, Margaret Hodge in her role as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has criticised the Home Office for apparently losing 3,527 illegal immigrants detained at the border. She claimed that low risk immigrants – those with a visa or passport problem – could have escaped from holding pens at Heathrow airport, but the Home Office insisted that none had done so.
Mandie Campbell, director general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office, said that not all of the 3,527 had been stopped at the border. Instead, some had been granted temporary admission “because their case can’t be dealt with on that day and then they fail to comply”.
The figure was uncovered by a Freedom of Information request lodged by The Telegraph with the Home Office. It showed that figures for absconding immigrants were down from 9,362 in 2010 to 3,527 last year, but that success rates in later apprehending them were down. In 2010, 58 percent were subsequently caught, whilst last year the figure was just 24 percent.
Speaking at the Committee hearing, Mark Sidwell, the top Home Office civil servant, said that more powers of detention were needed. “We don’t have the legal authority to indefinitely detain everybody who we encounter at the border who we think is in breach of one of our laws to enter the UK.
“Not all of them are escaping from detention. That isn’t in all cases part of our powers.
“They may have travelled, for example, on a false document, and then claimed asylum at the border.”