About 2,000 migrants attempted to storm the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais, causing severe delays to cross-Channel rail services and gridlock on UK roads, it has been revealed.
The migrants’ attempts to enter the UK forced the tunnel operator to close the terminal early on Tuesday morning, disrupting rail services for up to an hour and having a knock-on effect on road tailbacks in Kent, Eurotunnel said.
The tunnel operator revealed the scale of the incident on Tuesday evening, around 12 hours after Kent police reintroduced emergency measures to ease tailbacks on the county’s roads. HGVs heading for the continent were queueing on the M20, with junctions eight to 13 closed to non-freight traffic, as part of Operation Stack.
The latest channel disruption came as the home secretary, Theresa May, committed an extra £7m in UK government funding to help increase security at the Channel tunnel’s railhead at Coquelles.
At an Anglo-French conference on migration held in London on Tuesday evening, May also said a deal had been reached with the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, to step up removals of the Calais migrants, particularly those coming from west Africa.
Eurotunnel had initially only said Tuesday’s disruption was due to “migrant activity”. But the tunnel operator later revealed that, over the course of the night, around 2,000 migrants had tried to breach the fences of its Calais terminal.
John Keefe, a spokesman for Eurotunnel, said the migrants had begun trying to gain access just before midnight. He saidsuch activity had grown progressively worse in recent weeks after the number of migrants in the area had increased from about 600 in January to its current estimate of more than 5,000.
“Just before midnight it starts, just after it begins to get dark. Then it goes on all night,” Keefe said. “They try to break through fences, make their way to the truck terminal, and climb aboard trucks and trains to make their way to the UK.”
French police had estimated the number of migrants attempting to invade the terminal, Keefe said.
Keefe said the migrants were well organised and their attempts to invade the terminal were clearly coordinated. “The attacks come in waves of hundreds of people at a time, so they are overwhelming for the police forces that are there and in the middle of it,” he said.
“We try to keep our services running but we can’t if there are people on the trains or on the tracks. We have to wait for police to clear the area and, at the moment, it takes a very long time because they just don’t have the resources to deal with so many people.”
The home secretary described the fresh moves to repatriate those gathering at the Channel port as “an important step forward”. May said: “We have had a constructive meeting with Bernard Cazeneuve and we have agreed on further work to ensure we can return migrants, particularly to west Africa, so we can help break the link between people making the perilous journey and thinking they can live in Britain,” she said after the London meeting.
There are no immediate details of how the repatriation scheme might work for those declared to be illegal migrants but one point agreed with the French was a move to open a support centre for migrants in Niger under the auspices of the International Organisation for Migration by the end of this year.
The extra £7m comes on top of the £12m of government money intended for increased Channel ports security announced last year which is being used to provide 1.2 miles of fencing at the Coquelles railhead to secure each side of the platform. The security fencing was last in use at a recent Nato summit in Newport and is due to be in place by the end of this month. The additional funding is also expected to be spent on CCTV cameras and sniffer dogs.
Eurotunnel has agreed to install permanent fencing on both sides of the platform and is aiming to complete some key areas in July, and concluding works in August.
Eurotunnel are also putting in 1 mile of permanent fencing on both sides of the freight approach road, which will be in place by September. The company will also introduce a secure truck zone early next year to enable 875 vehicles to wait safely within the port.
The attempt by 2,000 migrants comes after the British and French authorities successfully intercepted more than 8,000 attempted illicit crossings over a three-week period up to 11 July.
The work to build new fencing to secure the approaches to the port of Calais and to allow more tourist cars to queue within a secure area was due to be completed by this weekend. The work on the extra fencing for Coquelles railhead – the focus of recent incursions – was also due to be finished by the end of this week.
Tuesday’s Channel tunnel disruption came as two Sudanese migrants were recovering in hospital after being struck by high-speed trains on Monday. A 35-year-old man was hit at about 4.30am as he tried to board a train in the Calais terminal, according to local media. A second man, 32, fell from a train about two hours later. Both were taken to hospital in Calais.
Earlier the same morning, up to seven more migrants, including one aged 14, were rescued from a water collection structure near the entrance to the tunnel. The four-metre-deep concrete basin, which collects storm water overflow, was emptied to ensure no more migrants were inside.
UK police said on Tuesday afternoon that Stack would continue for the rest of the day, but they refused to comment on plans for Wednesday.
A police spokesman said the operation was back in place because of continued disruption in Calais and the large number of lorries heading towards Dover. “Motorists are advised to plan their journeys carefully and allow plenty of extra time if travelling towards the east of the county,” police said.
On Monday, Highways England rejected the Freight Transport Association’s proposal for a contraflow system on the M20 to ease gridlock, saying it would present a significant and unacceptable safety risk to those required to work on it.
Matthew Balfour, Kent county council’s cabinet member for transport, said the chaos was costing the local economy £1.5m a day. “All the roads in east Kent get completely blocked up so people can’t go to the shops, they can’t get to the doctor, the hospital,” he told the BBC.
“They can’t pick up their children, queues are endless and it’s really insufferable. And it means that people who run shops in the towns and the villages don’t get their trade because people stay at home.”