Trucking hell: driven mad in the migrant Mecca Calais
Irish drivers are at the frontline as the French port faces a migrant emergency and crippling strikes. The crisis has brought some of the world's great troubles to our doorstep. Kim Beilenberg reports from France. Photos by Mark Condren
It is a crisis in which it is possible to feel sympathy for almost everyone involved. On the roads into the ferry port at Calais, Irish truckers, who are just trying to do their jobs, have to contend with hundreds of migrants, some of whom will go to any length to hide on their lorries in a bid to hitch a ride to the UK.
As Cavan man James Reilly drove his truck through France, two men climbed underneath the trailer and tied themselves to the spare wheel holder. Luckily for him, he spotted them in his side mirror, and French police took them off. On other lorries, stowaways have hidden above axles.
"A few days ago, 350 migrants were caught trying to board trucks near Calais in just four hours," says James Reilly, who was hoping to carry post back across the Channel when I met him in a monster traffic jam in the middle of this week.
The narrow stretch between Calais and Dover is not only an economic lifeblood for Britain, with wave upon wave of monster juggernauts travelling through the Channel Tunnel and on ferries every day.
It is also an essential trade passage between Ireland and the continent with up to 1,000 Irish trucks funnelling through daily.
Over the past fortnight, this essential route has been crippled by strikes. Trucks stretched over the horizon as far as the eyes could see as I walked along the road - and close by I came across a tented shanty town, which makes parts of Calais look more like downtown Port au Prince than a prosperous corner of western Europe. The great transport hub has been turned into a vast multinational refugee camp.
A few stowaways manage to make it through to the other side, and when they emerge from the lorry, they tend to frighten the drivers, who also fear repercussions from the authorities.
Tom, a Tipperary lorry driver who did not wish to give his full name, tells me he is thinking of packing the job in because there has been so much hassle getting through Calais and other ports in France.
"I travelled from Dieppe to Newhaven with a lorry load of potatoes. After four hours travelling through England to Leigh Delamere, I stopped for a coffee and four men jumped out."
It is not that the truckers are not sympathetic to the plight of people who have travelled across deserts, seas and mountains to fulfil a dream of living in Britain.
"Don't get me wrong," says Tom. "I can't stand people jumping on to my truck, but if I was in their situation, I would do exactly the same as them and try to get away."
When I met him on the road to the Channel Tunnel, Paul McKenna from Emyvale, Co Monaghan was emerging bleary-eyed from a rest in the back of his cab. Paul was still showing signs of anxiety after he stopped to take a rest break 120km down the road earlier in the day.
In the immediate surroundings of Calais, Irish truckers have learned that it may not be safe to stop. So they usually park trucks some distance away, but the stowaways have cottoned on to this and are trying to board trucks further and further away.
When Paul came to the back of his truck after his rest on Tuesday, he heard an insistent knocking from the inside. How could it happen? Someone was trying to get out.
The trailer of Paul's lorry on that particular day was a dangerous place to be; the Monaghan lorry driver was carrying yoghurts on one of his regular runs across the Channel.
When he opened the back of the truck, Paul was stunned to find six Syrians, almost freezing in the cold store. They could not stand the cold any more, and wanted to get out.
"I told them to get away and I had to wait before the police came before going on my way," he tells me as he is stuck in a never-ending traffic jam in searing heat.
There is a good chance that the men who jumped on board Paul McKenna's truck had to flee the civil war in their homeland.
In the centre of Calais I met another group of Syrians who had got out of their home town just minutes before thugs from Islamic State went on a murderous rampage
Jean, the soft-spoken leader of the group, says: "We come from a Kurdish area of Syria. We were told that we only had 30 minutes to leave before ISIS came. We had to grab a few belongings and go."
Jean and his fellow migrants now live in the doorway of a church in the centre of Calais and have to move their belongings every time there is a ceremony such as a funeral or a wedding.
Over the past fortnight, Africans, Afghans and Syrians, who congregate in their thousands in Calais in the hope of an escape to Britain, have seized their opportunity.
Adding to the woes of the Irish truckers, French ferry workers have gone on strike over job losses, crippling the transport infrastructure and at times closing the Channel Tunnel.
On Tuesday afternoon, we were all set to travel to the tunnel by train when the militant ferry workers gained access to the track, and set fire to tyres on it. On a bridge over the track, we came across the smouldering rails after our train was cancelled.
The combination of the strikes and the presence of roaming migrants is a recipe for chaos.
Lorries are backed up for miles in a tailback that seems to go on forever. In recent days, the stowaways have tried to jump on board.
Driving along the road, they would suddenly emerge from bushes on to the motorway. They congregated on high ground above road ready to pounce when they saw their chance.
According to the Irish Road Haulage association, a substantial number of Irish truck drivers have been fined in the UK for having been found with migrants on board.
Trucking companies can face penalties of £2,000 (€2,800) for each migrant found on a vehicle. In this crisis everyone blames each other. The British blame the French for having what they see as lax security around the port.
And the French blame the British for making it easy for illegal immigrants to find jobs on the black market.
Although there are no official figures, at least 15 people, including young women and teenagers, have died in the Calais area over the past year as they tried to get away. Just a few days ago, a man died after trying to leap from a motorway bridge on to a moving truck.
Many show little fear of what might happen, having already been through so much.
One Sudanese asylum seeker who camps at the side of a building tells me he had seen many of his family butchered in a civil war. He had travelled across Africa to Libya, and from there took a boat to Italy. Of the 27 passengers on board, only he and one woman survived when the boat capsized. The crisis in Calais shows how some of the great troubles of the world are now right on Ireland and Britain's doorstep, and they are only likely to come closer to home, as thousands more migrants arrive.