10th Dec 2023

Calais migrants head to Belgium to cross channel to UK

  • Jabbeke station on the E40 is a favourite spot for migrants heading to Calais (Photo: Alice Latta)

A highway parking lot in Belgium has become a staging point for migrants heading towards Calais in France and onto the UK.

Big trucks pull into the Jabbeke service station, located off the E40 highway just west of Bruges, around a one-hour drive from the French port.

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  • Organised smuggling operations are using the port in Zeebruges to take migrants to the UK (Photo: Alice Latta)

With the number of migrants in Calais topping 3,500 and French security stepping up border controls, people are seeking alternative entry points further north in Belgium with the hope of then making the sea crossing into Britain.

The Jabbeke service station is run by Total, outfitted with a Delifrance bakery, and a parking lot large enough for dozens of big rigs.

One Polish trucker in his late 20s on his way to Calais, and who did not want to be identified, says he often sees migrants being loaded onto the back of the lorries at Jabbeke.

“I see them getting onto trucks all throughout the day”, he said.

The station’s manager, Vanessa Sim, also declined to comment but a spokesperson at Total Belgium said the area is known for migrant smuggling.

“It’s clear that this zone in Belgium and Jabbeke is confronted by this problem”, said Marc Longin.

Longin said it was not Total’s responsibility to sort the issue but said they are working with the trucking companies and local police.

Peter De Clerk, a federal maritime police commissioner at the coastal Belgian town of Ostend, says Jabbeke is part of a larger migrant smuggling route that starts in Brussels and other big towns.

“They try to get into a lorry in Brussels, in Ghent, in Jabbeke, because they are sure that these lorries go to Calais and onto England,” he said.

De Clerk said local and federal police are cracking down on the smugglers but when this website visited Jabbeke, there was no discernible police presence and no apparent signs of migrants.

Belgian coast – world’s longest tram

Flemish media are reporting that the surge in migrant numbers in Calais means many are instead opting to leave from small harbours along the Belgian coast.

A €3 tram ticket takes one from the French border near Dunkirk within walking distance of the Netherlands.

The tram runs along the entire Belgian coast and makes 68 stops along the way, including big harbours in Nieuwpoort, Ostend, and Zeebruge. The entire trip takes less than three hours.

Mieke Dumont, a TV reporter at Focustv – WTV, says an increasing number of migrants camped around Calais and near Dunkirk are using the tram to get to the Belgian harbours.

With the tourist season kicking off, she said some find work in Belgium and then pay British boaters to take them back to the UK.

“They come from the camps in Calais and travel along the coast not knowing where they are, they don’t know they are in Belgium sometimes, they just try to reach the next harbor,” she said.

Ostend, a popular tourist spot, once ran ferries to Dover in the UK but then stopped in April 2013. Up to 500 migrants were living in squalid conditions near the harbour at the time.

“Due to that reason the migrants also disappeared and went to Calais,” said an Ostend port authority spokesperson in an email.

But Ostend city police commissioner Philip Caestecker says migrant transit to UK has since stopped.

"Since then the problem of what we call transit of illegals has disappeared. We don't have any signals that this problem is increasing again,” he said.

A large container port further north in Zeebruges has also stepped up security with lines going to Antwerp, Rotterdam, Norway and the UK.

Stephane Heymans, who runs the Belgian operations at Medecins du Monde, says people leaving from Zeebruges are being kept hidden away from the public in safe houses in Ostend. The aid agency runs a medical clinic to treat migrants from a homeless shelter in Ostend.

“There are still migrants crossing the channel from Belgium, but from Zeebruges”, he said.

The big harbour is the main entry point for gas imports into Belgium.

But Dumont says the overall clampdown means migrants with less means are opting for the smaller leisure harbours while others try their luck at Hoogedijk, a container port in the Netherlands with fewer security features than at Zeebruges.

The last tram stop at Knokke is only kilometres from the Dutch border, separated by a large expanse of barren dunes and no infrastructure. Numerous trails cut through the dunes.

Red diesel ban

Federal police commissioner De Clerk, for his part, says migrants from Calais are not disembarking from the Belgian coast.

“We are a Schengen port and we control everything that arrives from England,” he said.

He noted British boaters are avoiding the Belgian coast after the Belgian government slapped a ban on red diesel, a boat engine fuel commonly sold at UK marinas.

“When they come here with red diesel, they get a fine and that is the reason we have fewer persons from England,” he said.

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