EMBRACING ROMA // Portugal // 2013 // © Ricardo Rodrigues da Silva
For centuries, Gypsy communities have been a part of the European territory. However they are still the most discriminated minority in Europe.
Portugal is no exception and throughout the country walls separate the Gypsy population from the non-Gypsy.
With a strong sense of Pride and Tradition, the Romani people is far from real integration.
The construction of social housing away from city centres has contributed to the rise of ghettos. The attribution of the Social Inclusion Income to many Gypsy families in addition to the usual preconception that Gypsies steal, smuggle and evade taxes has grown a feeling of discontent within the communities that has lead them to further close in on themselves.
THE WALL OF PREJUDICE // Beja, Portugal // 2013
text: Katya Delimbeuf
In 2006 in Beja, Alentejo (centre south of Portugal) a 3 metre high wall was built to "protect" and isolate the Gypsy population. The relocation of Bairro da Esperança (Neighbourhood of the Quarries) into Bairro das Pedreiras (Neighbourhood of Rocks) settled the community 3 kilometres away from the city, without access to public transport or infrastructures. The population felt ostracised and with less quality of life despite having electricity and running water.
On April 23rd, 2010 a complaint was made by the ERRC (European Roma Rights Centre) to the European Comity for Social Rights, mentioning this case has representative of the precarious conditions of social housing destined to Gypsy communities. According to the ERRC, Portugal had violated European Social Letter. In 2011 the European Comity ruled in favour of the ERRC: "Gypsy communities live in precarious conditions and the alternatives presented by government authorities have not been adequate." (more on this case here tinyurl.com/portugalvserrc).
The 3 metre high and 100 metre length wall, that prevent visual contact from either side, has since been lowered to 1 metre.
Seven years later we went to Beja to asses the situation.
It's Monday, March 11th, 2013. The wind blows strong, punishing the several rows of houses in Bairro das Pedreiras (Neighbourhood of the Quarries) and mixing the clothes hanging on the hangers.
The wall is there, separating the neighbourhood from the main road. It doesn't have the fence around anymore and the locked iron gate was broken with the use of force by the community. Within 50 house, 200 people live there. For seven years.
The inhabitants, all of Gypsy ethnicity, are quick in complaints. They state, unanimously, that they would rather live in the old Bairro da Esperança in-spite of the wooden construction and no running water. They were "so close to the city" and had "non-gypsy neighbours" and here "there are no conditions" they assure. "There are mice everywhere, the other day we killed a snake. The pounds next door throw the filth directly into the sewers, we're constantly sick" they cry.
"This is the cemetery of the living" states Nazaré dos Reis (54), widow, covered in black from head to toe. "Around here everything was Cypresses, the trees of the cemeteries. Nobody likes it here", because of the proximity with the animals. António do Carmo Graça quickly shows us the damage to his car, caused by rodents last night, "Mice ate all my cables. It's a 1000 euros to get it fixed, they tell me at the garage". The houses inside are problem ridden, they guarantee. Ground floor, all the same. One after the other, 60 square metres. A living room with fire place with a stone counter for the kitchen, two 6 square metre bedrooms and one bathroom with a a shower. The complaints repeat themselves: the small rooms where you can barely fit a bed let alone several for the many children. Water comes through the windows, sealing give way due to infiltration, the "paper doors" as they call them, the concrete floor tiles they had to place on their own. Some have reconfigured their homes, breaking walls to enlarge the living room.
At António do Carmo Graça's live eight people: three girls, Isabel do Carmo (12), Maria João (15) and Patricia do Carmo (17), they sleep in the same room. I look inside and see no bed. "There's no room" their mother complaints and points to the mattress on the floor where the girls sleep. Next door, the boys room has a bed. One for two. In the living sleeps the father, mother and baby daughter, also in a mattress that is folded back everyday along with the covers and stacked on top of a chair.
They state the City Hall has never made any maintenance work since the neighbourhood, and the wall, were built in 2006. Tarpaulin, held in place with bricks covers the roofs, and the windows are formed of plastic. Seven years later the Bairro das Pedreiras looks degraded. "The 30 euros rents should be used for this" they consider. They live off the Social Inclusion Income, 260/325 euros, depending on the number of children. Amounts that, according to the community, do not allow them to go to the fairs and sell clothes because the money isn't enough to buy the merchandise. Nobody has a job, women or men. "I'm sick" some state, showing medical subscriptions yet to be sorted.
Prudêncio Canhoto, mediator for the City Hall in Beja for four years confirms: "in Beja getting a job is very complicated. Nobody wants the Gypsies. They also lack schooling. Nobody gives them a chance". Has a consequence they all live off the Social Inclusion Income (SII), a fact that does not bode well with the rest of the population. "The majority of the people in Beja thinks that "there" is where the Gypsies should be". "They even think they should be further away. And when a Gypsy steals then all the Gypsies are thieves".
At 40 year of age, Prudêncio lives in a small village near by Beja where he is the only Gypsy in his street. "I'm seen has a different Gypsy. I'm cherished". "I'm married to a Gypsy woman for 22 years, have five children ad one grandson". He denies the City Hall has never done any maintenance but, admits "the houses in Bairro das Pedreiras have less quality then other social housing facilities. The 3 metre high wall was placed there, in 2006, so nobody would see them" he confesses. "Still to date, many people in Beja do not know this neighbourhood because it's far away from everything".
City Hall recognises "a series of problems" with Bairro das Pedreiras. Laura Rodrigues, head of social action in the municipality defends that "the main issues lie in the location of the neighbourhood and the limited budget for construction. The inadequacy of the current family aggregate to the initial typology of the houses but also the disrespect and poor use given to the houses". The rents "which the lowest value was 4,85 euros" was in 2009 "unpaid by 47 families out the resident 50. There was also an unpaid some in water bills amounting to 80.000 euros". However we have been working on reducing these debts by "making people accountable to their duties".
"The decision to built Bairro das Pedreiras away from the city centre, with a wall over 2 metres high all round, was taken by the former executive" states Laura Rodrigues, explaining that the justification given for the built was the "protection of the residents relative to the passing road". However, this is not a main road and it was the current executive that decided to lower the wall after the complaint from ERRC. City Hall, further states that "from 2010 to the present day several street cleaning and sewage maintenance has taken place" but "due to budget limitations are not able to do all they would wish to". The construction of new social housing is not planned and there is no budget available for the renovation of the current location. Laura Rodrigues admits that almost everything went wrong with Bairro das Pedreiras: "I'm of the opinion that social housing built exclusively for the use of Gypsy families are a mistake". However she believes there is room for integration. "From 2010 to the present day, there have been major improvements. I believe integration is possible".
Outside, indifferent to the cold and rain that punishes the grass, kids play among the trash, the miniature cars, the dogs, the horses, the bugs. Who will they become when they grow up?