Last-ditch talks to avert Calais blockade amid migrants dispute


Last-ditch talks are due to take place to try to avert a potentially damaging blockade around the Port of Calais amid fears it will cause mass disruption to British cross-Channel travellers.

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve was in Calais on Friday meeting with French hauliers and local businesses in an effort to resolve the dispute sparked by the migrant crisis, British haulage bosses said.

Pressure has been increasing on the French authorities to tackle the problem which has seen the camp known as "the Jungle" swell in size in recent months.

Despite efforts to reduce numbers by dismantling the slum's southern section earlier this year, up to 9,000 migrants from countries including Sudan, Syria and Eritrea are living in squalor at the camp.

Starting on Monday, shopkeepers, police unionists and farmers are reportedly set to join hauliers in a "human chain" to call for the camp's northern section to be demolished.

Ferry companies, including P&O, were trying to work with the French authorities to ensure cross-Channel passengers will be able to travel safely and securely.

As truckers and travellers braced themselves for disruption, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said the meeting was being held in Calais to reassure locals and ask that the action be called off.

RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: "I shall be in attendance at today's meeting. The effects of a blockade at the port would have a massive impact on UK-bound hauliers, from an economic perspective and, more importantly, their safety will be compromised."

Dover Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke said the action will cause "nothing other than chaos" and instead he demanded "real action".

He said: "While I have the deepest sympathy for the people of Calais, Monday's demonstration will achieve nothing other than chaos on the roads of France and Kent.

"What's needed is real action to tackle the causes of this crisis."

People traffickers are going to extreme lengths in Calais, with reports of trucks being torched, petrol bombs thrown and trees being cut down to block roads before drivers are threatened with chainsaws and machetes.

Gangs are paid thousands of pounds by vulnerable people to get them to Calais, from where some are smuggled to Britain to work to pay off huge debts to people traffickers.

Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart pledged to turn out in support of the protesters on Monday during a visit to Ashford, Kent, this week to forge closer Anglo-French business links.

But, pointing to Ms Bouchart having set up the camp in the first place, Mr Elphicke said: "She is protesting against a problem of her own making."

And he remained unconvinced by reports in a French regional newspaper that Mr Cazeneuve has pledged to dismantle "the Jungle" in stages.

"We've heard this all before," he said.

"Will they actually do it this time? The French government should target, catch and jail the people traffickers and end the evil trade of modern slavery."

A repatriation centre should be set up away from Calais to help migrants back to their home nations, and ensure truckers were protected from constant attacks, he added.

This week Britain and France pledged to work together to address the crisis in the wake of questions about the future of co-operation on border controls.

The governments of the two countries presented a united front after a meeting between Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Mr Cazeneuve.