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The cost of Calais' chaos

August 4, 2015

Hundreds of billions of euros worth of goods are transported through the French port of Calais every year. But a migrant crisis and striking port workers have made business for freight operators there much harder.

Image: DW/B. Riegert

In Calais, hundreds of migrants - often young men - crawl under fences and onto train tracks every night, waiting for a chance to stow away on freight trains traveling to England via the Eurotunnel. Others try to hop on the back of delivery trucks or ferries headed the same way.

Both methods are risky. Out of the hundreds of people that try their luck, only a handful ever succeed. Some even die trying.

But there is still little that would convince the migrants to stop striving to reach England, where they hope for jobs and a chance for a better life. Many of the wannabe stowaways already risked their lives at least once in dangerous sea or land journeys to Europe.

But as the situation continues unresolved, the costs for all sides - especially logistics and transport businesses active around the English Channel - keep growing.

Those companies have complained of lost revenue as delays, cancellations and accidents pile up. Periodic striking by Calais port workers have only made things worse.

The authories haven't been much help either, perhaps because they are also largely helpless. One of their solutions has been deemed Operation Stack, which foresees thousands of trucks being parked on the road leading to the port to prevent them from causing gridlock elsewhere.

Million-euro losses

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) trade body said the British freight industry is losing 750,000 pounds (1.07 million euros) per day as trucks get stuck on the British side of the English Channel.

That doesn't factor in the cost of perished or undeliverable goods. The UK's Fresh Produce Consortium said at least 10 million pounds worth of food headed to Britain had to be thrown away between January and June.

"This can't be allowed to continue," Chris McRae, the FTA's manager for rail freight policy, said in a statement released Monday. "Businesses are losing money day after day because of delays and cancellations to services caused by the migrants and strikers."

The FTA also estimated that around 250 million pounds worth of British trade is lost every day due to the Calais migrant crisis. Annual trade between Calais and the English port city of Dover across the Channel totals around 89 billion pounds.

That estimate of lost revenue has been challenged by some, who maintain it doesn't take into account trade diverted to French ports other than Calais. They say the 250 million-pound estimate would be much lower if it did.

German firms in trouble too

Either way, affected companies can agree on one thing: The migrant crisis is cutting into their bottom line. And that includes some German companies.

Adolf Zobel of the German logistics trade association BGL has warned of the "existential threat" to some logistics and transportation firms and called the circumstances at Calais "unsustainable."

Munich-based Thermotraffic, which delivers frozen goods, said delays in the summer are especially costly. In July, officials cited "six-figure losses" due to the crisis.

There are some winners

But there aren’t only losers. Logistics solutions companies have seen a spike in their business as exporters sought to find ways around the port crisis to deliver their goods. More and more companies are turning to temporary, quick fixes like chartering planes.

Dover-based Priority Freight reported 900,000 pounds worth of aircraft charters to deliver products in the four weeks after July 23, up from 160,000 pounds in the same period last year.

Evolution Time Critical, an emergency logistics supplier specializing in delivering original manufactured auto parts, said it has also seen an uptick in business. It has chartered planes or sent trucks to alternative airports in areas needing the auto parts.

The UK has since announced new measures to deal with the crisis, such as the building of a fence along the French side of the Eurotunnel. But few are confident that is a viable solution. BGL's Zobel doesn't think it is.

"The question is, whether more fences will really help," he said.

jd/cjc (Reuters, AFP)