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
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