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French Ferry Workers Strike in Calais as Aid Organizations Warn of Migrant Crisis

In the port city of Calais, 600 workers fearing redundancy strike, tying up traffic and costing businesses millions — meanwhile, conditions at a migrant camp worsen.

It's shaping up to be a long, hot summer in the port city of Calais.

A strike, during which workers blocked the Channel tunnel with burning tires and slabs of concrete, has been added to a deteriorating situation at the migrant camp on the city's outskirts, where some 3,000 migrants are living.

In a dispute over potential job losses, workers from MyFerryLink, a passenger and freight ferry company, started a fresh wave of strikes Monday, and have now blocked the port for the third day in a row. Ferry services between France and the UK remained suspended, severe traffic jams have followed the blocking of roads around the port, and many migrants have used the strike as an opportunity to storm idling UK-bound trucks.


At a demonstration on June 27, one of the union chiefs warned of a "hot summer" of industrial action and disruptions in Calais.

MyFerryLink — formerly SeaFrance — faces closure in July, and many of the company's 600 employees now face redundancy.

On Tuesday, 30 striking workers halted Eurostar passenger trains in both directions for several hours when they blocked the tunnel with the burning tires and concrete. Police escorted protesters off the site around 5PM, but the strikers warned of "strong actions" in the days to come.

As well as causing severe travel disruptions, the strikes are reportedly costing companies that rely on the port of Calais millions of dollars in daily losses.

A three-year battle
SeaFrance's former employees have been waging a political and legal battle since 2012, when France's national state-owned railway company, SNCF, and the French government stopped subsidizing the ferry company.

SeaFrance declared bankruptcy and went into liquidation, and Eurotunnel purchased the company's ferries and formed the MyFerryLink group to transport passengers and freight across the Channel. The former SeaFrance workers organized themselves into a cooperative — Société Coopérative et Participative, or SCOP — renting the ferries from the Eurotunnel group.

In 2013, Britain's anti-monopoly regulator banned Eurotunnel from operating ferries, on grounds of unfair competition. The British authorities confirmed their ruling at the end of May 2015, forcing MyFerryLink to sell its passenger ferries to Danish company DFDS. Workers fear many of the 600 jobs at the company will be cut in the changeover.


Migrant crisis
Some 3,000 migrants live in a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of Calais, and disruptions caused by the recent strikes have led to standoffs between French police and migrants trying to make the most of the slowed-down traffic to board UK-bound trucks.

Lise Véran, a Médecins du Monde [Doctors of the World] employee based in Calais, told VICE News that migrants attempting to hide on board idling trucks were sooner or later intercepted by the border police, and that the strike had limited effects on the overall migrant situation.

Migrant aid organizations and NGOs did, however, agree that conditions for Calais' migrant community were getting worse, and appealed this week for urgent action to address the squalid living conditions in the port city's makeshift camp.

In a joint statement, four major NGOs — Médecins du Monde, Solidarités International, Secours Catholique, and Secours Islamique — referred to the situation as a "major humanitarian crisis" and said that living conditions in the makeshift settlement known as the "New Jungle" fell short of UN standards.

Hundreds of Migrants Brawl With Iron Bars and Knives at 'New Jungle' Camp in France

When contacted by VICE News, the local authorities in Calais said they were unable to comment on the effects of the strike on the migrant situation.

Fractures and injuries
Véran said that tightened border security in Calais — including the use of sniffer dogs and CO2 and heartbeat detectors — meant that increasing numbers of migrants were risking their lives trying to storm moving trucks at the very last minute. Véran said the number of "fractures and injuries" reported by migrants had risen significantly in recent weeks.


On June 26, an Eritrean man died trying to board a moving train.

Referencing the crisis on Tuesday, Doctors of the World said that NGOs had been forced to mobilize "logistical resources usually reserved for situations of war and catastrophe."

Calais is often described as both a magnet and a dead-end for migrants who have landed in Italy and are trying to reach the UK via France. In a report released Wednesday, the UN Refugee Agency said that 137,000 migrants had attempted the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean in the first half of 2015, versus 75,000 in 2014 — an 83 percent increase.

Eurotunnel's leasing contract with SeaFrance officially ends Wednesday at midnight. Despite promises by Eurotunnel and DFDS to keep 322 jobs, the strikers have vowed to "continue their action," and have threatened to block the entrance to the Eurotunnel for two days, starting Thursday.

Follow Pierre-Louis on Twitter @pierrelouis_c