“Sorry, my battery’s low because I drained it watching YouTube tutorials on how to assemble dinghies,” Abuzar says. He is speaking on a video call from the abandoned shed in Calais he calls home. “I want to join my brother for asylum in the UK, but I have to work for smugglers because I don’t have enough money to pay for the crossing.
“They hide boat parts on the beaches for me to assemble at night, but I’m so scared– – if I mess it up, children could drown on the boat.”
The home secretary, Priti Patel, has spent £33.6m on border controls in Calais and announced plans to crack down on smugglers – even though charities and lawyers say those arrested are often vulnerable migrants themselves.
On the northern coast of France, asylum seekers tell the Guardian that tighter border controls have helped smugglers become ever more powerful.
“I think the security controls are only helping smugglers, not anyone else,” says Bijan, a Kurdish asylum seeker who paid smugglers £3,500 at the end of last year for one of 24 spaces on a 12-person dinghy. Migrants stood to save space as others baled water from the dinghy’s slatted floor.
He describes an exploitative system operating in Calais and Dunkirk, with smugglers using desperate migrants for dangerous jobs in return for the promise of cheaper passage.
“It’s a kind of slavery. Poor refugees work as house servants for smugglers; women sell their bodies; others are made to be lookouts or drivers, and can then be arrested and thrown in jail. But they do it because it is their best chance at a safe life. That is all refugees want: peace. We are tired.”
Charities working with migrants report observing the same pattern. “What we’ve seen in Calais and Dunkirk is a shift from people crossing alone to an infrastructure that completely revolves around smuggling,” says Charlie Whitbread, founder of Mobile Refugee Support. “This has never stopped people coming to Calais – they have been through far worse and will stop at nothing to be safe again. Frankly, it’s unbelievable the government still seems to think these measures deter them when the reality is so obvious to anyone on the ground.”
Even those profiting from the illicit trade agree that the situation has become more extreme. The Guardian spoke to two men who have worked on the Channel crossing, carrying people across for increasingly large sums as security made it harder to cross.
“The violence is getting worse and worse because the mafias just get more powerful,” says Zoran, a Kurdish smuggler who operated in Dunkirk lorry carparks until last year. “It became too much for me.”
Yet he adds, with some pride, that growing security has emboldened mafias by tightening their monopolies over routes. “Smugglers know everything about security on the border, that is their job. So when security gets worse, smugglers just get cleverer and more powerful … Some were even working with the police. You could get away with anything if you worked with the police.”
Maya Konforti, secretary of L’Auberge des Migrants, says there is truth behind his boast. “For years and years now it’s the same story on repeat: one way is blocked and another appears. Smugglers just keep outsmarting security.”
Zoran says his job became ever more lucrative as security between the UK and Calais increased. “The bosses charged just a few hundred euros in 2014, but when I left it was four [or] five grand for the same lorry crossing.”
“Prices went up with each new bout of security spending,” says another man, Saad, who worked with Sudanese and Kurdish mafias in Calais at the peak of the refugee crisis four years ago. Over the years he was there, the UK funded £98.9m worth of barbed-wire fencing, riot police deployment and infrared detection in the area, which he claims only made smuggling more profitable, and enabled mafias to come to dominance in the first place.
“A growing obstacle course on the border made crossing alone impossible for migrants. This attracted mafia groups who studied the controls and found ways around them, knowing what desperate people would pay for these ways.
“We thank your government for our full pockets,” he says.
For years refugee charities have called for the government to process asylum claims on the UK’s external border and to focus on expanding safe routes rather than border controls. But legal routes have instead been closed. In January, Brexit cut off reunification routes for refugee families separated across Europe and the government has abandoned target quotas for resettlement schemes of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
In 2019, when there was a 16-year peak in arrivals before lockdown reduced European migration flows, Aran crossed the Channel as an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy fleeing Isis in Iraq, joining his uncle in the UK after a year of travelling alone.
He describes how a smuggler in Dunkirk once took out a knife and threatened to cut off another boy’s finger, before beating him up badly while Aran watched. “I was terrified and helpless. But I couldn’t stay in France, the situation there is terrible. Every morning, police kick you awake, slash your tent with a knife and tell you to move. Where should I go? You won’t even let me sleep in a tent!
“The horrid truth,” says the teenager quietly, “is that smugglers are our only allies.”
“Smuggling can be terrible, harsh, cruel,” Saad admits, “but it’s a privilege to be smuggled. That is what the government can’t see.”
Hungary’s ruling nationalist party has submitted legislation to ban content it sees as promoting homosexuality and gender-change to minors, Reuters reported. The draft law would ban LGBTIQ literature for under-18s, including educational material, and advertisements deemed to be promoting gay rights. The vote will take place next Tuesday. Prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government has been taking aim at the LGBTIQ community ahead of elections next spring.
Biden’s predecessors – Donald Trump and Barack Obama – too violated rules when meeting members of the Royal Family. The Republican and his wife Melania shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II and her late husband Prince Philip instead of curtsying and bowing, while the Democrat made a speech over the UK’s national anthem.
US President Joe Biden violated royal protocol while attending a G7 dinner reception in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail has reported, citing Debrett’s, a leading authority on royal etiquette. According to the newspaper, the protocol states that all guests must arrive at the venue before royals and no guest should leave an event before members of the “Firm” (nickname for senior members of the Royal Family and their staff).
The Democrat and his wife Jill arrived five minutes after the Queen got there with Prince Charles and the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge. However, it appears that the faux pas by the US president didn’t affect the meeting as the monarch seemed happy when she greeted Joe Biden and First Lady Jill.
Queen Elizabeth II speaks to US President Joe Biden and his wife Jill as she attends a reception at the Eden Project with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and #G7 leaders, during the G7 summit in Cornwall. #G7Cornwall 📸 Jack Hill pic.twitter.com/znVT4pTF4q
Reports say the presence of the Royal Family was crucial as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is attempting to sign a post-Brexit free trade deal with the United States.
Biden became the 13th sitting US president to meet with Queen Elizabeth II during her 69-year reign. The monarch has met every US president since Dwight Eisenhower, except for Lyndon B Johnson, who did not visit the United Kingdom during his time in office.
While posing for a group photo with other G7 leaders, Queen Elizabeth cracked a joke. “Are you supposed to be looking as if you’re enjoying yourself”, the monarch said making leaders chuckle.
‘Are you supposed to look as if you are enjoying yourselves?’ – the Queen makes the leaders laugh tonight, taking centre stage pic.twitter.com/5KvwzKh6g0
Spain views its bilateral relations with the United States as a whole, not as a set of separate areas where it is possible to have a good relationship in one (defense, for instance) and an openly hostile attitude in another (trade).
This was the message conveyed on Thursday by Spain’s foreign and defense ministers, Arancha González Laya and Margarita Robles, respectively, to US ambassador Duke Buchan. Washington should not expect military cooperation to increase while simultaneously imposing new tariffs and issuing threats to Spanish businesses, said Spanish government sources.
The Foreign Ministry portrayed the meeting as an initial contact between the new head of Spanish diplomacy and the Trump administration’s representative in Madrid. The encounter took place 48 hours before González Laya was scheduled to have a telephone conversation with US State Secretary Mike Pompeo.
For the first time, military cooperation was framed as one more element of US-Spanish relations, together with political, economic and cultural collaboration
But the unusual format of the meeting – two ministers going to see an ambassador – reveals a goal that goes beyond diplomatic formalities. For the first time, military cooperation was framed as one more element of US-Spanish relations, together with political, economic and cultural collaboration.
This attitude signals a change in Spain’s position: until now, the US military presence in the country had been “encapsulated” and treated as a separate issue, even at times when relations were cooler, such as the period when former US president George W. Bush and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero were in power.
In recent months, the Spanish government has authorized the US to replace four missile destroyers at its Navy base in Rota (Cádiz) with more modern vessels. The move also involves increasing the US presence at the base with a new helicopter maritime strike squadron. And the Spanish government has been sounded out about the possibility of deploying six destroyers in Rota instead of four, which means increasing its naval force by 50% and adding 600 sailors.
Spain views the agricultural tariffs, imposed in retaliation over European subsidies to the aviation giant Airbus, as unfair
While these requests are being made, the Trump administration is also making decisions that the Spanish government views as unfriendly. The most serious one of all was the recent introduction of 25% tariffs on several agricultural products, including olive oil, wine and cheese. Spanish exports of these products represented over €800 million a year.
Spain views these sanctions, imposed in retaliation over European subsidies to the aviation giant Airbus, as unfair. The tariffs have added to the financial troubles of Spain’s agricultural sector, which has been staging protests for weeks. But it wasn’t the first time: under pressure from California growers, in 2018 the US government slapped a tariff of nearly 35% on Spanish black olives, forcing Spanish exporters to take their battle to the US courts.
Another recent decision by the US State Department is viewed as even more hostile: the vice-chairman and CEO of the Meliá hotel chain, Gabriel Escarrer, has been barred from entering US territory. The move also affects his children and close relatives, and it is derived from Title IV of the Helms-Burton Act, which allows the secretary of state to deny entry to individuals who “traffic” in property that was confiscated from US nationals by the Cuban government from 1959 onwards.
The vice-chairman and CEO of the Meliá hotel chain, Gabriel Escarrer. has been barred from entering US territory
Several Spanish companies with a presence in Cuba have already been threatened or faced with legal problems under Title III, which allows US nationals to bring suits against anyone deemed to be “trafficking” with expropriated assets. But while these cases can be appealed in court, the decision to bar an individual from entering the country is discretionary and cannot be contested. “Not even North Korea does this sort of thing,” said one Spanish diplomat.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration further warned that it is considering sanctions against foreign companies operating in Venezuela as a way to put pressure on President Nicolás Maduro. The Spanish oil company Repsol was specifically named along with Russia’s Rosneft.
The decision to put military and trade relations on the same level follows Trump’s own logic: the US president has warned that NATO allies that fail to contribute 2% of their gross domestic product to defense could ultimately pay in the form of tariffs.
On Wednesday, the Spanish foreign minister told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels that Spain is a “solid and reliable” ally. González Laya is planning to travel to Washington DC shortly, although Madrid is aware that the Trump administration is currently focusing on the re-election effort.
Despite the differences, the US-Spain relation is considered strategic. “For multiple reasons, political, economic and security-related, we consider it a priority to maintain and expand our relations with the United States of America,” said King Felipe VI in a speech to the diplomatic corps at the Royal Palace, just hours after the ministers had met with the US ambassador.