Detecting a Heartbeat

How the migrant crisis has made Ireland’s hauler industry a war zone

Calais trucks


As the claustrophobic walls of the tunnel closed in, the freight truck driver thought he heard creaking coming from the undercarriage. He was long past any point of return, and stopping to get out would cause a barrage of honking from behind him. Perhaps, he thought, if there was somebody hiding under his truck they would leave as soon as the fresh English air blew in. Or perhaps, he had just imagined the noise.

Truck drivers found entering the UK with stowaway migrants on board can be fined £2000 per person discovered. In Ireland, 90% of goods circulated involve road travel, and 70% of our market is dependent on export by road. When the trucks can’t safely make it out of France, the rest of their journey experiences a domino effect. The recent announcement from Calais president, Xavier Bertrand, that the French would cease all border patrols following a Brexit has brought the crisis to a boiling point. This is a more than a matter of money or inconvenience; being contained in a small area with little oxygen for days is life threatening for the migrants. The President of the Irish Road Haulage Association (IRHA), Verona Murphy, has just returned from Brussels after pleading to the EU Transport Commissioner for stronger protective measures for haulers and migrants.

The issue became relevant in Ireland last weekend with the discovery of nine migrants in a trailer near Rosslare port. They were sent to Waterford regional hospital for evaluation, and their condition was said to be stable. For Murphy, this highlights how close to home the crisis is coming, and she fears that the IRHA will soon have deaths on their hands. “It affects absolutely every industry in Ireland. We had a case where a shipment of cars was examined and migrants were found to be hiding inside the cars. Migrants don’t want housing, they don’t want to be relocated, they want to be in England.” Simply reaching England does not ensure that they will be permitted to stay, let alone that asylum status will be granted.

French customs authorities enforce a series of checks to ensure that there are no stowaways on board the trucks. One test, known as the ‘heartbeat test,’ scans a vehicle with micro-waves to detect if there is any living thing on board. Other tests include sniffer dogs, and carbon dioxide detectors. Some drivers have been caught with stowaways despite receiving the all clear from French customs. Murphy believes that the French authorities are not doing their job correctly, although she acknowledges that the steady uprooting of the Calais ‘Jungle’ is unmanageable.

The most recent incident involved an English driver who was found to have five stowaways on board in the UK, despite receiving the all-clear in Calais. His fine of £10,000 is currently being disputed. Last November four Irish drivers were discovered with stowaways and faced fines totalling €54,000. Some of the migrants discovered were armed with knives. The IRHA, which represents many haulers, claims that a genuine fear for their lives is one reason many drivers do not confront migrants.

Drivers are no longer taking traditional routes through Europe in an effort to avoid migrant camps. This has caused a sharp rise in the price of deliveries, most notably produce, which is in turn affecting the restaurant industry. According to Neal Costelloe, sous chef at SuperMissSue Restaurant in Dublin’s city center, finding alternative sources of produce is difficult and costly. “At first we just thought our delivery drivers had made mistakes in giving us these jumbo prawns, but then they told us that was all we could get. Higher quality suppliers and their drivers are the only ones who can afford the risks.” When a food delivery truck is found to be carrying a stowaway on board, the entire contents of the truck are destroyed.

And what about the migrants? They risk their lives to climb on board and if they make it, they can apply for asylum in the country they reach. At first glance, the ends appear to justify the means. Many migrants have unfortunately been misinformed about the benefits available to them in the UK. A comparative study done by the BBC last year found that cost-of-living benefits were actually higher in France, although they didn’t provide any money for children. The difference between the amount of applications granted in France and England is minimal (around 4,000), and France approved a higher proportion of their applications in 2014.

The distance between Calais and Dover is only 31 miles, yet it is a high stakes journey for both drivers and migrants. The struggles can begin long before the Tunnel screenings. Last week, Eoin Gavin from County Clare was driving a truck full of steel from Germany to Kerry when he stopped for petrol in Northern France. “I watched as nine guys climbed into the back of the truck. They refused to get out when I asked so I had to wait for the French police to arrive, and they [the police] gassed them all. It wasn’t very nice to watch.” Gavin has been driving for 20 years, and although he has had to deal with migrant stowaways since 1999, the problem has gotten out of control. “I can’t afford the fines. If the French police hadn’t helped me, I could have been stuck with €18,000 bill. If you don’t pay they [UK border patrol] take your truck away.” For him, the only answer is English police permanently stationed at the French ports.

Each country is claiming that their resources and manpower are quickly dwindling. A last resort would be to involve the military, but the English are reluctant to engage in a visibly physical confrontation. Increasing fear with violence does not usually bode well in easing an atmosphere of suspicion toward the other.


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