Diary of a Bin Lady

Author: Rachel, Dulwich Hamlet fan and bin lady of Calais

Imagine how untidy a British high street gets after a Saturday night. Then imagine that there are no bins on the high street, there are no rubbish collections, and periodically someone comes and dumps a pile of wet clothes in the middle of the street. Then add some partially burnt tents to the piles of rubbish. Oh, and there are inadequate toilet facilities so there’s overflowing sewage dotted around too.


That is the sort of rubbish found around the camp in Calais. Every month, groups of people with wheelbarrows, spades and forks, gauntlets and protective masks travel out for a day and clear as much of it as possible. My role is to coordinate and publicise those trips and try to get people excited about bin bags.  These trips are a good way of getting people started helping in the camps, doing something organised and tangible in a group with friends. Many of the people who join us then start to arrange their own trips, fundraisers and support for the residents.


On clean up weekends we try and do two things: clear up the huge piles of rubbish that have built up over time and set up long term, effective systems to manage waste in the future. In the three months we have been up and running we have run three weekends; we have collected tons and filled thousands of bin bags. Medicine Sans Frontier and ACTED identify priority areas for us to work on, for example where rubbish is a risk to health rather than just being unpleasant and unsightly.

Residents always muck in with the cleaning (usually in the most inappropriate footwear and with no gloves) but we want to get them more involved and in larger numbers. One of the challenges is that equipment we leave in the camp is repurposed (bins become storage, for example) and there are tensions between some communities that mean we have to be careful who we involve where.

There is an enormous backlog and periodic fires which result in further heaps of tangled, ruined belongings that need to be cleaned up. I’m working on plans to make the clean up weekends bigger, more frequent, and with more refugee consultation and involvement ahead of the actual clean ups. On the last clean up weekend (20-22 November) we were blown off our feet by the bad weather conditions and didn’t get much cleaning done. We made good use of our time in the warehouse instead, but I’m acutely aware that residents of the camp are still sleeping next to rubbish and we need to work together to do something about that.

It’s not completely bleak- this weekend I saw that there have been have been some significant improvements. I was delighted to discover a gravel track has been laid so more of the camp is accessible: and since MSF and Acted arrived on the ground the toilet facilities have been vastly improved. Not only are there many more of them, they are cleaned daily. Access to water is improving too- currently there are a few standpipes dotted round the site which have been ‘improved’ with duckboards and sinks by the waste volunteers but they are hugely inadequate, prone to flooding and infected with e-coli. ACTED have plans to set up another ten standpipes, and this weekend are already laying piping.

Even so it’s a nightmare trying to keep the camp clean- there are ‘camping showers’ dotted around the site, but the main washing facilities are at the Jules Ferry centre, a French government run support centre on site. 500 people a day can have a 6 minute shower- provided it is staffed. There are also washing machines in the centre. They are completely inadequate for a camp of this size and the residents laughed when I asked about them. We are trying to get shower cleaning added to the rota but it’s often difficult to figure out how to make stuff happen and at the moment we are at stalemate.

The site used to be a rubbish dump and is between chemical factories that are considered a danger to human health and the environment. The whole area is protected- you are not technically allowed to dig there because of what you may find. And the fires- both cooking fires and accidental, devastating fires- mean the air is full of particulates that contribute to ‘jungle lung’ and other long term health conditions.  People should not be living here. There is a limit to what we can do about it- the local authorities are being asked what their plan is to dispose of the asbestos that can be found in one area, but there are much more fundamental and pervasive pollution problems than asbestos.

I was asked how I got involved the other day and I honestly can’t remember. I do know I thought it would be a little light fundraising. I had no idea that six months later I would have boxes of thermals in my kitchen, half-made food parcels in the loft and a long list of emails to answer covering topics from long drop toilets and shelter insulation to ferry prices and the tax status of donated wheelbarrows.

The need is overwhelming- ordinary people like me try and fit helping between our jobs and families, but this crisis is huge. There are thousands of exhausted, traumatised people suffering cold, hunger and insecurity just 90 miles from London. It really needs a compassionate, large scale government response- and a change to the contradictory and discriminatory policies that govern immigration. But until that happens the grassroots network will keep going, adding a few extra tins of tomatoes to their weekly shopping, negotiating fiercely for discounts on thermals, joining the constant trickle of vans down to Dover and Folkstone, and hoping that all our new friends survive the winter.

The next #CalaisCleanUp is on Sat 19 December 2015

Join the waste group on Facebook
Get in touch with Rachel via emailvia email

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Matteo’s account of a weekend in the camps

Written by Matteo, Clapton Ultras – Brigata Italiana 

Describing the camps of Dunkirk and Calais is not easy. Back home today (11 December 2015) it is probably harder, the emotions and the sensations I felt are not as strong as they were on site. And this makes things more complicated.

When I was there, delivering food and sleeping bags, I could only feel the importance of what I was doing. The smile of the residents when they receive something they really need, such as a decent pair of shoes to replace the rotten ones they were using so far or a clementine, is something that is impossible to  explain in a paragraph or two.

Even if I do not have skills to save life – I am not a doctor – or to build proper accommodation – I am not a builder – I could feel the weight of the significance of those simple actions for those people at that moment. These sensations make you go ahead, the only thing you want to do is use all the hours you have once you are in France.

Then, back in UK, all the positive feelings started to mix with anger and disappointment. I thought that without the volunteers these people would be completely abandoned. On site, there is no sign of the French government or of the European institutions. All the talk about a unified Europe, about being European citizens is just talking, hollow rhetoric used to fill newspapers and essays. How is it possible that few of the most “developed” countries in the world such as Germany, France, UK or Italy cannot take care these of people? After having traveled for more than two months using all the modes of transports, mostly dangerous or illegal, is living in a muddy tent the only reward for these people?

The reality is that solidarity is a word too hard to pronounce and to be put in practice. Many people prefer to hide behind word such as “invasion” and chose to “defend the integrity of their habits” by voting for a racist party such as the National Front (the highest percentage at the recent regional vote in France is  in the region of Calais). Putting a cross on a voting slip for these parties is easier than talking to refugees, listening to their stories and understanding the reasons why they are leaving their countries.

Racism is a a barrier that people build in their mind to avoid to making an effort for somebody else, to avoid understanding that suffering, pain, death and sacrifice are the same for all the human beings, no matter their country of origin or their religion.

Follow @dulwich2dunkirk for updates on the situation in the camps and how you can help

Quick update ahead of our fourth trip to France

Last week we started fundraising for our fourth trip to Calais. In a little over a week, we’ve raised over £4.5k, at the time of writing this the total sits at £4535.

With that money and with the help of a friend, we’ve already bought a van for our friends Hafsa and Zineb, two local women from Dunkirk who visit the camps everyday to provide aid to the residents. The level of practical solidarity Hafsa and Zineb show to the residents has totally blown me away. They take them into their own home for a shower, pay out of their own pockets for those who particularly vulnerable to spend a night in hotel when they are in need of respite from the grinding deprivation of the camp, they seem to live their lives in service of those who have lost everything and are stuck living rough in a field in France.


We’ll be delivering the van along with supplies such as food, sleeping bags, blankets and tents to Dunkirk this weekend. The van will make such a difference to the way that the girls do their work on camp each day. Currently the are using a really small car to transport donations back and forth across Dunkirk and into the camp. This van will save them so much time and fuel money and allow them to be a lot more efficient in their operations.

The money that we have raised will also be spent on a respite caravan which will be run by Sofinee Harun. The idea is that the caravan will provide an environment where younger residents of the camp who are unwell can come and rest in a warmer, dry environment. Sofinee and her team of volunteers will be on hand to provide basic care and comfort while the young people recover.

With the money that’s left over we plan to buy food for Sofinee’s kitchen and for the One Spirit Ashram Kitchen. We will also buy a large quantity of gas and food for the Dunkirk camp to be distribute by Hafsa and we’ll buy some fruit and snacks to share around the camp.

We’ll take guidance from Hafsa and Zineb about what is most needed in the camp tomorrow (5 December) and we’ll go and get it for them.

We’ve also been collecting physical donations. The very kind folks at Calais Action let us come along and help ourselves to blankets, tents, tarp and pots and pans which will all be put to immediate use in both Dunkirk and Calais. An incredibly generous friend bought 50 blankets to be given out in Dunkirk along with 50 hot water bottles that we bought with donations.


You may have heard about the two-month-old baby who developed hypothermia last week and had to be rushed to hospital. We want to make sure this never happens again but winter is only just beginning and we have a long way to go.

Thank you to everyone that has helped us with donations, both financial and practical, by sharing our fundraising page, for lifts, for tea, hugs and for space to process and talk about the things we see when we go to camp. Thank you from all of at Dulwich2Dunkirk

If you want updates in real time, please follow @dulwich2dunkirk