Tunnels here, there, bad and good

Migrants walk on a road outside the Eurotunnel area, in Calais, northern France, last week. More than 3,000 migrants have tried to storm the area surrounding the Eurotunnel in an attempt to enter Britain.
Migrants walk on a road outside the Eurotunnel area, in Calais, northern France, last week. More than 3,000 migrants have tried to storm the area surrounding the Eurotunnel in an attempt to enter Britain. The Associated Press

Drive around drought-devastated Northern California and you will invariably see cars with “Stop the Tunnels” bumper stickers. “Stop the tunnels” has also become a rallying cry in the United Kingdom, where politicians in London are scrambling to halt the sudden free-flow of immigrants using the Channel Tunnel to pour into England from Calais, France.

Two very different challenges related to age-old subterranean engineering solutions meant to transport resources from one place to another. Whether those resources are water, goods or people, tunnels are back in the news.

Tunnels are having a star turn in the United States. The high-priced Delta tunnels are slated to spirit water south while saving estuaries up north and provide thirst-quenching solace to the more populated parts of this dry state. Gov. Jerry Brown touts a million hours of study for a sustainable subterranean solution.

Prison tunnels have also gained their share of headlines, with high-profile escapes by murderers and drug kings in New York and Mexico, all involving a high degree of patience, engineering skill and guile.

The Mexico tunnel used by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for his second successful prison break is similar in construction, ventilation and efficiency as the tunnels his drug cartels use to send contraband under the U.S.-Mexican border. Running underneath the fences and Department of Homeland Security personnel, buried chambers with rail lines are the cargo conduits for cocaine that go undetected from Mexican storage sites to San Diego warehouses. The better the U.S. ground defenses and border fences become, the deeper, bigger and better the underground tunnels built by the Mexican drug cartels.

Last year’s Israeli-Gaza war was catalyzed by armed guerillas who used “terror tunnels” to sneak into southern Israeli territory for a planned hit-and-run attack on a kibbutz. Palestinians have perfected their tunnel-building skills over the years of cross-border underground commercial smuggling of arms, fuel and building materials from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Redirecting tunnel construction and turning it from a defensive, supply chain medium to a fully functional and scalable offensive attack mechanism against Israel came suddenly and as a surprise to Tel Aviv.

Last week, however, has brought on a new meaning to tunnel tragedy. Mass “Chunnel” crossings by flash mobbing migrants are the crisis du jour on the European continent, with at least nine people having died this summer attempting tunnel crossings. On Monday night, more than 2,000 mostly African migrants tried to get into the French-side terminal to sneak their way into England.

The crisis has spurred the U.K. into emergency actions to secure the French tunnel entry point in Calais. The Brits have already allotted about $10 million in immediate funding for the French to beef up fences and deploy extra security personnel in order to shut down the gathering and growing immigration threat. In the meantime, the British anti-immigrant political forces have found one more rallying cry for anti-EU British-nativists, a cry further fueled by dramatic images of desperate migrants hiding and dodging in railyards and hopping vehicles bound for the Sceptered Isle.

Napoleon once planned to invade Britain by tunnel, and the centuries-old threat and fear of a land invasion are still ingrained somewhere deep in the English psyche. Up until recently, the overwhelming hordes of African migrants have sought resident status in Europe by rushing the fences of the unique Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the African continent. Others have boarded rickety boats for the southern European shores of Malta, Italy, Spain or Greece. Until recently, none were able to flee on foot for Folkestone Road in Dover.

But the tide has now turned and a formerly isolated U.K. that has benefited from European markets and labor, is now further exposed to one more downside of European integration. The Eurotunnel, Britain’s umbilical cord to the continent, has suddenly become a tight leash to Europe’s wider, unmanageable immigration problems.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.