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How the Calais Migrant Crisis Is Affecting UK Roads and Residents

Desperately seeking asylum and not being able to drive down one section of a motorway are clearly two very different plights. Still, there are plenty of pissed off people this side of the Channel, so we went to speak to them.

by Ryan Fletcher, Photos: Carl Wilson
Aug 4 2015, 3:45pm

Trucks backed up along the M20 as part of Operation Stack

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

To pass the time, Stoian Georgel was watching the B-movie Operation Rogue on a laptop in the cab of his truck. Once he was done, the Romanian long-haul driver planned to clean the cab's living space again, browse the internet, and go for a short walk by the side of the M20 motorway—which was closed off to all non-freight traffic—to stretch his legs and chat with other marooned drivers.

Stoian was seven hours through what he estimated would be a 13-hour wait. Behind and in front of him, the same monotonous scene was repeated by thousands of other bored truck drivers, prevented from crossing into Europe because of what's happening across the Channel in Calais: ferry workers striking over 600 job losses, as well as blocking access to the port by setting fire to tires laid across the road; and migrants trying to cross into the UK by making their way onto the Channel Tunnel.

Over the last week, up to 2,000 people at a time have repeatedly rushed the port's fences, leaving one Sudanese man dead and a French police officer in the hospital. Ten other migrants have died attempting the journey since June, including a baby.

At its peak, the line—named "Operation Stack"—was 36 miles long and contained 7,000 trucks. All of the vehicles were being held on the motorway because there are only 550 parking spaces for HGVs in Kent, and delays to cross-Channel services mean these spots fill up fast.

To ensure the rest of the county's roads aren't blocked by trucks unable to get to France, a section of the M20 is closed to regular traffic, allowing the HGVs to stack up there instead. Though the M20 opened back up to normal traffic on Friday, a couple of days after I visited, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the crisis would last all summer.

On the motorway last week, the drivers were bearing the delays—which, at their worst, were lasting up to 18 hours—the same way anyone stuck in traffic does: aimlessly. Among the bumper-to-bumper lines, which looked a bit like an attempt to create the world's biggest freight train, drivers paced, smoked, and talked.

"[The migrants] are a big problem in France. They get inside the trailers and the police do nothing about it. They are already in the EU, but for some reason they want to get here. Maybe the UK government needs to do something," said 36-year-old Polish driver Robert. "The ferry workers think they can make a change by striking. But setting fire to the roads achieves nothing, and their actions are very bad for all the people. As for me, I am tired and bored."

Stoian Georgel

Forty-year-old Stoian was more philosophical about the situation. Shrugging his shoulders, he said: "I'm too small to attack anybody. They're doing what they feel like they need to do, I guess. But my routine is messed around. I am used to driving, resting, and eating in an order. In this queue [line], I have to move when they tell me to move, and I'm thrown out."

Another Romanian driver, who did not want to be named, said that he was paid per kilometer and that waiting in line for so long was eating into his wages. Adding to the stress of those caught up in the jam were porta-potties that looked like they'd endured two weeks at Glastonbury.

'Disco Boy' dancing around in an M20 tunnel

Kent County Council and charities distributed thousands of water bottles and meals, though many long-haul lorry cabs are self-sufficient. The Sun was also handing out pizzas, but the most any driver could really hope for was a motorway services close enough to walk to. Canterbury-local Lee Marshall, a.k.a. "Disco Boy," did attempt to cheer up the stranded drivers last week, though not with hot food. Dressed in lycra shorts, sunglasses, and a hat, Marshall held a 40-minute mobile disco in an M20 tunnel, fist-pumping to "The Roof Is On Fire" in the way of oncoming traffic.

The mood of Kent's residents, facing a summer of congestion, also needs improving. Roads have been gridlocked, and there have been disruptions to public transport and refuse collection. Local businesses have also suffered because people were fearful of getting caught up in traffic; an estimated £1.5 million [$2.3 million] per day is wiped off Kent's economy when Operation Stack is in full swing.

The port of Dover

"The delays are getting more and more frequent," said 27-year-old dockworker George McMullan. "The lorries are starting to take short cuts through the town now. The traffic is literally imprisoning Dover. You can't go anywhere. I don't blame the migrants. If I came from a place that had nothing and there was the chance to come here and prosper, I'd do the same thing."

George also didn't blame the strikers, saying he "couldn't knock them for it—they're getting their point across, aren't they?"

He did, however, blame the authorities. "I don't think the government are making much of an effort to solve the problem in Calais," he said. "They need to do more to give the French a hand. They can't just throw money at the situation."

READ ON VICE NEWS: Hungary Is Building a Wall Along the Serbian Border to Keep Migrants Out

In response to the delays, which have occurred on 27 of the past 40 days, the UK government has pledged £7 million [$10.9 million] for higher fences and more sniffer dogs at Calais. There are also plans to cut a £37-a-week living [$58] allowance for family members of failed asylum seekers still in the UK, and to allow fast track evictions of "illegal immigrants" from British properties.

There's debate as to whether these kick-em-out and keep-em-out policies will actually work. For many, the journey to reach Calais is incredibly dangerous and expensive—so why give up when you've already risked so much? Away from Westminster, there are vocal activists shouting about both sides of the argument in public. In Folkestone on Saturday, a solidarity demonstration for migrants was met by a counter-protest from right-wing groups Britain First and the EDL.

This month, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that a secure zone will be set up in Calais to prevent migrants from climbing onto lorries bound for the UK, after 8,000 attempts were made in three weeks. She also pledged to work more closely with French authorities in "returning people to West Africa," failing to mention that many of the Calais migrants are asylum seekers from war-torn countries, such as Syria and Iraq, where repatriation isn't possible.

David Cameron said he would "work hand in glove" with the French authorities to deter and prevent what he referred to as a "swarm" of migrants from trying to cross the Channel. Understandably, the comments drew criticism from the bishop of Dover, Rev Trevor Willmott, who said that when "we forget our humanity then we end up in these standoff positions."

The Swedish justice and migration minister, Morgan Johansson, reacted by declaring that if Britain took its fair share of asylum seekers the problems in Calais would be lessened—a call echoed by the European Commission.

Sweden allows anyone from Syria into the country. Last year it accepted 30,000 claims in total, compared to Britain's 10,000. According to the UNHCR, last year the UK received just 31,000 asylum claims, whereas Germany had 179,000. This year, German officials expect that number to more than double.

But none of this European altruism seems to have made much of a mark over here. To reiterate the government's anti-asylum seeker stance, Theresa May wrote a joint article for the Sunday Telegraph with her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve over the weekend, announcing that "our streets are not paved with gold."

The British government is determined to make it as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and other migrants to enter the country, and is not prepared to discuss the possibility of a humanitarian imperative. Until that changes, it seems likely that massive interruptions to the running of Kent's transport infrastructure will remain a regular feature, as people willing to risk their lives to reach Britain continue their struggle for a way in.

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