Calais Crossing: An Inside Look At The Ugly Business Of Human Trafficking

Calais, France along the English Channel has served as a hub for UK-bound illegal migrants for more than a decade. Now Egyptian, Kurdish and Albanese traffickers are fighting for control.

Illegal immigrants in a Calais "jungle"
Arthur Frayer

CALAIS Inside, the convenience shop sells the usual selection of beer and whiskey, chips and candy. Outside in the parking lot, just a few meters away, human trafficking is underway. Welcome to the Transmarck freight zone, on the outskirts of the northern French city of Calais.

Here, two hours away from both London and Brussels, Africans, Afghans and Syrians basically become merchandise, often spending several thousand euros to get across the English Channel to search for work in Britain.

Over the past decade, this place has become one of the strongholds of European migrant smuggling. And an important piece of it happens in this small parking lot, which is barely bigger than a tennis court, where trucks heading to the United Kingdom pass through. Much of the business occurs in plain view.

The police drive by several times a day to break the rhythm of the smugglers and dissuade them. But the inevitable flow continues.

At first glance, Transmarck looks like a dull and functional industrial zone: two streets, one roundabout, metallic warehouses, and trucks registered from all over Europe parked diagonally and close together on the secured parking areas of the region's companies. Only the supermarket is not enclosed by fences.

On a recent autumn afternoon, under the low skies of the northern department of Pas-de-Calais, the thickets rustle with nervous movements. Afghans are occupying the area. Around 15 men, crouching in the grass and the rubble, with their bags on their backs, are watching the stationary trucks outside the shop, just across the road. As soon as a heavy truck cuts its engine, the young men jump out, cross the road and try to sneak inside. Each attempt is a failure. The drivers, not all of them complicit in this game, are watching.

Ahmad, a 26-year-old student from Kabul, steps aside from the others not to disrupt them. He rolls a cigarette between his fingers. "We have until 6 p.m. to climb into the trucks," he says. "After that, it's the Africans' turn. We can only start again the following morning from 6 a.m. At that time, it's still a bit dark, so it's our best chance."

Price of a "guarantee"

All of this may seem surprising. They have a timetable to risk their lives to get to England? Ahmad suddenly seems confused. He arrived in Calais only four days ago, he says, and is simply following what the other Afghans are doing. And he was told they were not allowed to be at the parking area during the night. Why? He doesn't know. Did he pay to be allowed here? He doesn't answer.

According to the French border police, the smugglers often hide among their "customers." Same nationality, same physical features, same language, same clothes.

Ahmad's kutchakbar (smuggler, in Farsi) is possibly there among the men in the bushes. A few months ago, the police were lucky. A smuggler got caught because he forgot one detail in his disguise: He was the only one not carrying a backpack.

French police entering a Calais "jungle" — Photo: Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA

At Transmarck, the migrant smugglers used to operate only at night. Now, they also make their customers try to sneak into trucks in broad daylight. The massive influx of newcomers, most from the Horn of Africa, allowed them to increase their revenue. The trade is profitable: 2,000 euros for a passing "with no guarantee," which means for a single attempt. Up to 5,000 euros for a "guaranteed" passing, for which the smugglers commit to make as many attempts as necessary.

And if there are deaths, by suffocation or being run over, there will always be new customers. Poverty is a flourishing trade. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), migrant trafficking yields more than $6.75 billion (5.35 billion euros) every year.

"People are treated like cattle," says Jean-Pierre Valensi, prosecutor of the Boulogne-sur-Mer high court, where most Calais cases are tried. "We find the migrants hiding in hollowed-out bottoms and in car trunks. Sometimes, it's whole families." One day, the police found five Pakistanis hidden in the trunk of a Mazda: the father, the mother and their three children, who had been given sleeping pills so they wouldn't make any sounds.

In the Calais region, parking lots are the center of migrant smuggling. Controlling them guarantees the domination of the market. Losing them means being outplayed by rivals. Kurds from Halabja, a town in northern Iraq near the current war zone where ISIS militants have attacked, rule the Marcel-Doret area of activity. The Eritreans control the Beau-Marais and the Steenvoorde service areas, on the road between the cities of Lille and Dunkerque. The Albanians, who arrived late in the business, control the gas stations further away along the A16 motorway: those of the Baie de Somme and of l'Epitre. An Albanian was stabbed to death one night in early March.

As for the Transmarck zone, for a long time, it was the territory of the Chamchamali clan, Iraqi Kurds, violent and very organized, implanted in the region for around 10 years and rivals of the Halabja Kurds. For a decade, they worked like a business: Traffickers blend in with the migrants in the "jungles" and the settlements. They lived like them, ate like them, slept alongside them. One of the heads of the network was found in a rearranged burrow in the forest. At night, their men organized incursions in the trucks. The Chamchamali were particularly fond of trafficking "the small eyes," as they called Vietnamese migrants, to England. They reportedly paid well and promptly.

Bad for business

But since 2011 and the breakup of a part of the clan by the border police, things have changed. The Kurds, weakened, have had to concede time slots to their rivals. The Afghan, Eritrean and Egyptian smugglers came along. Better give a bit of our territory than flee completely, the Chamchamali thought. They didn't imagine the Egyptians would outfox them. Led by an ambitious boss nicknamed "Ramadjan," the newcomers have waged war against the former bosses.

In Calais — Photo: Kai Hendry

The groups fought each other twice in the freight zone in the early 2010s. Not far from the battle locations, the police found handguns, sawed-off shotguns and high-caliber hunting rifles. The Egyptians have partially taken over power, and rumor has it that in Egypt, "Ramadjan" has built himself entire streets.

In one of the parking lots, an employee wearing overalls categorically refuses to reveal his name or his company's so he does not have any "complications." Still, he describes what he sees every week: The smugglers climb onto the roofs with a knife to cut the top off the canvas covers "just behind the driver's cabin" and push their customers to climb in there. The drivers end up with damaged trucks. Pallets are turned over. "It's really bad for business," says one driver. Most of the time, the migrants sneak in without the drivers knowing, but sometimes, unscrupulous drivers are paid to turn a blind eye.

In his office, March's young Mayor Pierre-Henri Dumont confirms what the employee would barely say out loud. "Some Transmarck companies have lost 20% to 30% of their revenues." Leaning over his desk, he holds out an aerial-view photo of the freight zone, printed from Google Maps. With the tip of his pen, he points to a field. "That's where the migrants live." It's only 500 meters away from the supermarket. Some freight companies now ask their drivers not to stop there anymore, and to take their break and fuel up before that, near the city of Lens, 100 kilometers away.

In his office of the Boulogne-sur-Mer high court, prosecutor Jean-Pierre Valensi says his powers to stop the flow are limited. "The heads of these networks are in England, and in our courts we only sentence the smaller players," he explains.

There are ebbs and flows, and new routes arise all the time. But here, between the European continent and the opportunity and relatives that await in Britain, the stream of humanity shows no signs of drying up.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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