Large-scale evictions of makeshift refugee camps in Calais are fuelling a rise in attempted Channel crossings as the situation for displaced people in northern France reaches a “tipping point”, charities have said.
UK Border Force intercepted what is thought to be the highest number of people in a single day on Tuesday, with 86 men, women and children arriving in Britain after boarding small boats in France.
It coincides with an imminent eviction of two major camps in Calais by the French authorities, which will see hundreds of people – including unaccompanied minors, pregnant women and young children – removed from their settlements.
It is thought the French authorities will take people to temporary accommodation in different parts of the country, but charities say many asylum seekers are making “urgent” attempts to cross the Channel before the evictions take place.
Maddy Allen, field manager at Help Refugees, told The Independent: “The idea that they could suddenly be hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the border tomorrow is probably going to increase people’s motivation to really try to get across tonight, so I think that’s why there might have been a bit of a spike this week.
“There’s also been a real shift in the weather. It feels like winter again now and I think it’s going to get harder to cross the Channel. So that combined with this imminent eviction and this sense of uncertainty.
“People are just sleeping on the side of the road in the day and then trying to cross at night. There’s this sense of urgency relating to the situation here.”
Last month Priti Patel, the home secretary, met with her French counterpart Christophe Castaner to discuss the issue and they pledged to “intensify joint action to tackle small boat crossings in the Channel” by “drawing up an enhanced action plan to deploy more resources along the French coast to intercept and stop crossings”.
Charities on the ground said since the meeting took place there had also been intensified security in the region and increased efforts to evacuate displaced people from their makeshift encampments.
Police are said to have begun fencing off the main camp in Calais and a sports hall in the region where more than 600 people are currently believed to be residing is set to be closed on Thursday.
Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, told The Independent: “Since Priti Patel’s meeting, [the police] have started blocking off all the areas. You’ve just got a load of people walking around, carrying all their belongings, with nowhere to go, not knowing what to do.
“They’ve said they’ll close the gym and evict [the people in]Calais, but they’ve been doing that for 10 years. It doesn’t change anything. Even closing the Calais Jungle in 2016 didn’t stop people crossing.
“All it does is put them in more danger – we need safe routes. These people just want to get their asylum claims heard.”
Calais 2018: The current living conditions for displaced people in Calais
Pierre-Henri Dumont, the Conservative MP for Calais, told the BBC he believed migrants were wrongly being told “the crossing will close” after Brexit, adding: “Smugglers are giving fake news to migrants, but it’s for them to earn money.”
He also said the UK’s asylum system should be changed to allow migrants to apply at British embassies in Europe, saying it was not possible to “monitor 400 or 500km of coast”.
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Ms Allen disagreed with Mr Dumont’s claim that fears over Brexit were fuelling a rise in crossings.
“There’s a sense of urgency, but I don’t think that correlates to Brexit,” she said. “People here aren’t reading the UK news. It’s more about the conditions here and being so desperate to leave this.
“It’s getting to tipping point here. There is nowhere to put a tent up in Calais. They’re fencing up landfill sites and sand dunes. Conditions are the worst I’ve seen them in a long time. Yesterday, I saw a man lying in the sand with rats running over his face.”
But Ms Allen agreed with the idea of enabling people to claim UK asylum in France, saying it would drastically reduce the number of people trying to cross the Channel illegally.
Home Office spokesperson said: “Crossing the Channel in a small boat is a huge risk. The criminal gangs who perpetuate this are ruthless and do not care about loss of life.
“We are working closely at all levels with the French authorities to tackle this dangerous and illegal activity. In addition, Border Force cutters are patrolling the Channel and we have already deployed equipment including drones, CCTV and night vision goggles."
The French authorities have been approached for comment.