The Calais “Jungle” has closed, but Mark Stone says young African men are now trying to reach the UK from smaller French ports.
The problems and the tensions with migration at the French port of Calais are well-established.
But in a sleepy Normandy fishing port four hours to the west, Sky News has found the tensions and strains have spread.
The town of Ouistreham is now a growing focus for young African men and boys trying to reach the UK.
It’s 10am and, while locals shop at the fish market and sip coffee at the town’s cafes, scores of young men are dashing after trucks heading to the port right in plain sight of everyone.
There are three ferries daily from here to Portsmouth in the UK.
At first we think we’ve stumbled upon a one-off. A random group, chancing it on a truck. But then another truck approaches and the spectacle is repeated.
The dangerous, brazen, desperate dash is now happening every day and every night on almost every truck that passes through.
They are all men, mostly from Sudan and almost all look like teenagers. We can’t prove it, but you can just tell: they have baby faces, spindly legs, no stubble.
Since the sprawling Jungle camp in Calais was closed last year, the many thousands of migrants in northern France have dispersed across the region.
Some have claimed asylum in France, some have returned to Paris where they live in truly grim conditions but many more are looking for other ways to reach the UK.
The town of Ouistreham hosts the port of Caen. There are daily ferry services to Portsmouth. It’s a small port without the same infrastructure or security used at Calais or Dunkirk.
On the edge of the town, the young men sleep in the ditches because the police have orders to remove any tents they try to pitch. They wait for the trucks to arrive.
In our car, we follow one truck with Bulgarian registration plates as it approaches the town. As it slows down to pass a roundabout, a group dashes from the bushes.
They manage to open the door but as it accelerates away they fall back.
A little further on, the driver stops. He’s clearly aware of what’s just happened. He closes the back door and returns to his cab. But seconds later – even before we were back in our car, they run past us, open the door and clamber on.
The route down to the port here is not like larger ports – Calais or Dunkirk – where motorways lead straight to the dockside.
Here the trucks must snake through the town which makes them much more vulnerable.
As the Bulgarian truck navigates round the narrow town centre, more young men make their attempts.
The local police are here and do what they can with the resources they have. But right behind their back, the Sudanese clamber back onto the trucks.
In all we counted 18 people get on. Most got off again, unable to hide. But four, maybe five – it was hard to see – made it, inside, to the port entrance.
There, where every truck is checked, four were discovered. We can’t be sure, but its possible one young migrant remained inside.
These groups, charging the trucks, are frightening and threatening. Few tourists or locals stop to talk to them; and you can understand why.
But with a smile and the offer of a handshake, we persuaded a few to talk to us because humanising the images is vital if we are to understand what’s going on.
When you do talk to them, you discover they’re just young guys, frequently just 14 or 15 years old, all with no parents present and all with nothing to lose.
The group I spoke to were all from the civil war ravaged Dafur region of Sudan. Mohammed told me he was 14.
“Why England?” I asked him.
“Because my brother is there,” he told me, explaining that his brother had used the same route to successfully reach the UK a few years ago.
“Where are your parents?” I ask them all. “Back in Sudan.”
They are driven by that basic human instinct that there must be something better over the horizon in England.
After we watch another truck boarded, an exchange with some locals provides a moment which demonstrates a divide over migration that stretches across this continent.
“They have to find money, and that’s why they always attack the weakest: old people,” one middle-aged woman says. She doesn’t want to reveal her name.
“I live near Paris in a suburb that is known to be very tough, very tough, where we are regularly threatened by some of them. My son was cut.”
She is with her elderly mother who lives in the town. She tells us she no longer feels safe shopping in the market.
Then another woman of a similar age approaches.
“I live here and we have never been threatened,” she says, introducing herself as Jacqueline.
“Yes, it’s true, there are many here at the moment that are running behind the lorries but honestly, I can’t say there are problems here.”
The first woman interjects: “You should experience the same [incident] that happened to me in Paris.”
Jacqueline: “You were in Paris. And we are here.”
The first woman shouts back in this spontaneous angry exchange: “We were threatened, I was threatened by seven Arabs in the metro because I was standing and they were sitting and violated me. My son has a scar on his face, madame. You have no idea what will happen.”
“Madame, you shouldn’t be so extreme. You should try and be more, more… ” Jacqueline says before the conversation fizzles out.
It’s quite clear that its causing real real tensions within the community. Many here help the young men with food, clothes, toothbrushes. Many others feel genuinely threatened.
Mohammed and his friends said three or four of them a month make it to the UK. It’s a figure impossible to prove. But from our experience here, it’s perfectly conceivable.
Our encounter with the tensions in a port far from Calais came on a day when police went into a makeshift migrant camp outside Dunkirk to move about 500 people living there, who were looking to cross the English Channel to Britain.
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Sky News asked the UK Home Office for a statement about the level of security at the ports – the UK and France share responsibility and funding for checks.
A spokesperson said: “Our approach to securing the UK’s border is working. At the juxtaposed controls and at ports around the country Border Force officers use some of the most advanced detection technology around to find and stop migrants attempting to reach the UK illegally.
“This includes a commitment from the UK to invest an additional £44.5m to protect the shared border. Part of this is being spent to reinforce the security measures in and around a smaller ports in northern France, including Ouistreham Port near Caen.”
The Home Office says that a “multilayered search regime using a range of interventions” is used at Portsmouth to screen all freight vehicles coming into the UK.
It includes heartbeat monitors, carbon dioxide detectors and sniffer dogs.
As the migrants wait for the next truck, what’s striking is that aside from the volunteers, no one official is helping or taking responsibility for them.