If you walk to the end of the cul-de-sac behind the sports hall in Coquelles, a village just outside Calais, you'll find a hole cut in the green chain link fence that blocks access to the A16 motorway. It may not look like much, but for thousands of illegal immigrants this 1m-by-50cm diagonal gash is the first gateway to a promised land: Britain. Hundreds of them pass through it every night, dodging the few strands of barbed wire and the heap of horse manure left there by French authorities in an ineffectual attempt at dissuasion. Once they've made it through the speeding traffic, they set off in ragged groups along the access roads that surround the Eurotunnel terminal before striking out through the swampy, scrub-covered hinterland that leads to a 2m-high chain link perimeter fence lined with three rows of razor wire. After squeezing through one of the holes marked with red-and-white accident tape, they reach the inner cordon a 2.5m fence of strengthened anti-climb steel topped with another layer of razor wire. Beyond it lie the trains of open-sided truck-transporters they hope will carry them through the Channel Tunnel. Since January, four have died in the attempt.
At dusk each evening their odyssey begins three kilometers away in Sangatte, at the Red Cross center that currently acts as a holding area for over 1,000 migrants. Last week, Eurotunnel announced it was taking the French government to court in an attempt to annul the 1999 decree requisitioning this cavernous 20,000-sq-m former factory to shelter the streams of illegal immigrants who converge on France's Channel coast. "The center provides an ideal base from which organized smugglers can operate," complains Eurotunnel's director of communications Franĉois Borel. "Ever since it opened, mass incursions onto our site have been increasing all the time." Between January and July, 25,000 would-be stowaways were apprehended. When caught, they're simply driven back to the center in Sangatte. "We even have to pay for the bus," sighs Borel. Eurotunnel has estimated its loss of earnings due to stowaway disruption at $21 million for the first half of this year and has spent an additional $4 million on tighter security measures.
If the company is reacting now, it's because the stowaway problem may soon start costing it even more money. In April this year, Britain introduced a $2,900 fine that truck drivers have to pay for every illegal entrant they bring into the country. The measure has been judged so successful that the British government this month announced its intention to extend the fines to Eurotunnel too: despite the company's new "zero tolerance" program, last Wednesday alone six stowaways made it through to the U.K. by hiding on its shuttle trains. Although Eurotunnel has challenged the legality of the fines before the High Court in London, the British seem unimpressed. "What you are seeing from Eurotunnel now is, to a certain degree, a pre-emptive strike," says a Home Office spokesman. "What we are saying is that although Eurotunnel has put up some fences and employed some security guards, we still want to see more from them."
Paris has been equally unsympathetic to Eurotunnel's plight. An Interior Ministry spokesman said last week that the company had chosen "the wrong target" by demanding the Sangatte center's closure. "The center was set up in response to the concrete humanitarian problem of how to accommodate the families and individuals present in Calais," the spokes-man explained. "It's not the center which is putting pressure on the rail network but the reality of this human presence."
The sheer scale of the migrant phenomenon has taken everyone by surprise. The center in Sangatte was originally set up to deal with 250 Kosovars who were camping out in a Calais park. Yet since it opened in September 1999, the building has accommodated a staggering 34,000 people the Red Cross estimates that nine out of 10 eventually make it through to the U.K. Eurotunnel's security systems were never designed to cope with nightly mass assaults on its perimeter fence, while France never imagined it would have to deal with thousands of passportless migrants massed at the far limit of the Schengen free-transit zone. "Ninety-nine percent of these migrants are illegal and could be convicted under French law," says a representative from a humanitarian organization. "But the migrant streams are simply too big, making the law inapplicable. We'd have to build tens of thousands of prison places."
Instead, hundreds of young men spend their days dozing in dozens of army tents and portable sheds erected inside the vast corrugated steel hangar at Sangatte. An endless food-line snakes away from the makeshift canteen. The air smells of disinfectant and bodies. Abasin, 30, is sitting on a camp bed in the doorway of his tent wearing a white T shirt, cream slacks and trendy suede running shoes. He left Afghanistan three months ago and has been in Sangatte three weeks, after traveling through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy. "Every stage was organized," he explains. "I paid $13,000 to get to England. There's a place in Peshawar called Khyber Bazaar with hundreds of travel agents. Officially they're selling air tickets, but in fact they can arrange anything."
Since Eurotunnel and the port in Calais began cracking down on stowaways this year, however, it has become more difficult for the travel agents to get their customers through to the destination they most commonly hype, Britain. Habib another young Afghan is sitting on a concrete block outside the hangar looking dejected. "Every day I spend here is a day in prison," he says. "So you go off to the tunnel and try your luck. I went there with a friend three days ago and he got through. He was lucky. I'm just waiting for my chance." As he speaks, young men have started leaving the center and making their way up the road to the hole in the fence by the motorway, hoping that tonight they'll be the lucky ones.