16 migrants were discovered in the back of a lorry on a ferry heading to Ireland | Photo: AFP / Paul Ellis
16 migrants were discovered in the back of a lorry on a ferry heading to Ireland | Photo: AFP / Paul Ellis

Despite the encroaching winter weather and the news of the dangers of attempting to reach the UK in refrigerated containers, it appears that some migrants are still willing to risk everything in order to attempt to migrate from the French coast to the UK. Some are setting sail in small boats across the Channel and others are hoping that less frequented routes via Ireland might provide a route to Britain.

In spite of the dangers, it appears that many migrants are still willing to take risks in order to leave France and attempt to reach the UK. On November 22, the discovery of 16 migrants in a lorry on a ferry bound from Cherbourg to Ireland appeared to signal the increasing popularity of an additional route to reach the British Isles.

The migrants, a group of Kurds from Iran and Iraq, which included two minors, were discovered on board the ferry and taken into Irish government care. Their discovery was not the first incident of this kind. They are believed to have applied for asylum in Ireland, wrote The Irish Times.

'Horrendous experiences'

Willie O’Leary, the head of Ireland’s biggest haulage company O’Leary International where the Kurds were discovered, told the Irish Times that over the last year they have discovered migrants in their trailers three times. “We’ve had horrendous experiences with refugees in our trailers  -- the biggest problem we find is at Cherbourg,” he said.

O’Leary and the driver of the truck in question are assisting the Irish police, the Gardaí, with their enquiries reported The Irish Times. The first time O’Leary’s trucks found migrants aboard, O’Leary tells the Irish Times, was after one of his drivers collected a trailer from the ferry port in Rosslare. “Our driver was coming back to New Ross when these refugees rang the gardaí to say they were on board a truck and the gardaí pinged the call to a mast in Camolin and started stopping trucks,” O’Leary reportedly said. The migrants were traveling on a ferry from Cherbourg France to Rosslare Ireland  Source Google Maps

During a second incident, a woman was apparently driving behind another of their trucks when her daughter spotted “a hand sticking out of the trailer.” The woman followed the truck all the way to its depot to tell the driver what she had seen. “We opened the trailer, a refrigerated unit carrying apples, and we found a family of Syrian refugees aboard, a mother and father, two teenage boys and a five-year-old girl – thankfully they were all safe and well but it was worrying.”

'The fear is we will open the door some day and find dead people inside'

A further incident happened in Calais when O’Leary says his driver had stopped off for a break near the French port and somehow “twigged [understood] these migrants had cut a hole in the roof of the refrigerated unit and 16 of them had dropped into the trailer, so we rang the French police and handed them over,” O’Leary told The Irish Times.

O’Leary says he lives in fear “that we will open the door some day and find dead people inside.” He calls the whole process “a horrible game at the moment for companies” and accuses the port of Cherbourg in particular for “not doing its job properly in terms of checking trucks.”

Depending on the cargo these trucks are carrying, the refrigeration will be at different temperatures, which is perhaps why some people survive the journey while others don’t.

Controls 'less strict' in Cherbourg

A French police source told Radio France International (RFI) that controls at the port of Cherbourg did, in effect, seem to be “less strict than those in the north of the country;” and that is why migrants might start to try their luck on that route rather than trying to get through the much tighter controls between Calais and the UK.

RFI quoted the Irish Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, saying that he thought that the Irish needed to tighten up their controls on the Irish side to prevent the country becoming another back door into the UK.A boat patrols the English Channel waters  Photo Picture-allianceGFuller

A second article in the Irish Times cited another French police source, reported as saying: "If Cherbourg is the new route to Ireland, we haven’t yet put in place the same controls that exist in Calais, which is the most common path to England,” the police source said. “This is the first time I have heard about Cherbourg and trucks. I’ve never seen that. Obviously we will tighten our controls."

The port of Calais is governed by the 2003 Touquet accords which means that both British and French border guards carry out checks. Cherbourg does not come under that agreement and there is speculation that might be the reason why migrants are hoping to make it first to Ireland and then over the land border to Northern Ireland which is UK territory. Although the President of the port of Cherbourg told The Irish Times that there, checks were rigorous he "couldn't say what those checks were." By contrast, the president of the port of Boulogne Calais told The Irish Times that every truck going through his port was checked three times; first by sniffer dogs, then by testing for a heartbeat on the lorry's chassis and lastly any refrigerated trucks are opened up and the contents inside checked.

Attempts to cross the Channel

On Sunday and Monday, reported the InfoMigrants French site a total of 24 migrants were rescued from the sea; the first group about 11 kilometers west of Boulogne-sur-Mer and the second about 5.6 kilometers west of Calais. Both groups had called the rescue services (CROSS Gris Nez) themselves and were brought back to Boulogne and Calais respectively, suffering from “light hypothermia” according to the border police and the emergency services SAMU 62.

The prefect then sent out a helicopter to make sure there were no other boats underway attempting the crossing. The prefect underlined that conditions could get very dangerous in the Channel and that migrants should avoid attempting to cross such a busy waterway. In addition, the French authorities said, “weather conditions in the Channel could often be very difficult [because] there are more than 120 days a year when wind speeds reach or supersede force 7 and water currents can be extremely strong. The water temperature too at this time of year is extremely cold, hovering around 14 degrees currently.”

'Almost daily crossings'

In the last year, there have been 240 attempts to cross the Channel using small boats, “that is almost daily” writes InfoMigrants French. The numbers have increased dramatically in 2019. In comparison, in 2017 there were just 12 attempts to cross the Channel, in 2018, 71. In 2019 alone, the authorities estimate that at least 1,400 people have reached the UK by crossing the Channel.

The House of Commons Library in the UK Parliament prepared a briefing on migration in October 2019. They looked at migration flows over the period 1991-2018. In it they found the immigration and net migration figures had risen during that time. According to this briefing, the UK is the second country in Europe, after Germany, with the highest inflows of migrants and the highest net migration figures. Foreign-born people made up 14% of the UK’s population in January 2018 and at that time 9% of Britain’s population retain their status as foreign national residents. 

The group of 39 Vietnamese who were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain came on a ferry from a Belgium port.

A large part of this article's quotes were taken from a report in The Irish Times by Barry Roche.

second article in The Irish Times by Lara Marlowe in Paris provided quotes from a French Police Source.

Additional reporting was translated from two French articles on InfoMigrants French: One initially published on Radio France International (RFI) by Émeline Vin and one on InfoMigrants French from the editorial team.


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