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Posted by portugalpress on March 07, 2014
José da Silva Reis Head of the Albufeira marina community

Deep-rooted discrimination and disaffection persist between the Gypsies and the wider public in Portugal, but there are signs that the ethnic divide is crumbling. Leading voices on both sides are calling for an end to the negative stereotyping of the Gypsies, and for the Gypsies themselves to interact more positively with mainstream society. Integration seems to be replacing countless years of intolerance and intransigence, but it is a painfully slow process.

The Roma, as they are more formally referred to internationally, maintain their own distinct cultural identity. They continue to live in close family groups, some still nomadic, others more or less settled in encampments or council housing scattered all across Portugal.

Widely disliked within the mainstream population, the Roma are perceived as dishonest. Misinformation and myths abound. Lack of communication not only clouds proper understanding, but stokes animosities and fears on both sides. It is a vicious circle.

Two very different projects give some idea of what is currently being done to help make a breakthrough. Short, medium and long-term measures are contained in a ‘national strategy for integration’ adopted by the government last year.

Complementing this at a very personal level, the Peta Birch Community Association in the Algarve is bringing specialist health care, medicine, food, clothing and essential supplies to the children of Gypsy families in the Albufeira area. They are doing this with the help of other organisations such as ACCA (Associação de Solidariedade com as Crianças Carenciadas do Algarve).

Racist stereotyping has gone hand-in-hand with bigotry and persecution ever since the Roma arrived in Europe from India via North Africa six centuries ago. In Nazi Germany, the Gypsies, like the Jews, were subjected to concentration camps and mass murder.

Without a homeland of their own, millions of Gypsies speaking different languages live in diverse communities all over Europe as well as in the Middle East and the Americas.

The Roma population in Portugal is estimated to be between 40,000 and 60,000, with concentrations in Lisbon, Setúbal, the Alentejo and the Algarve. The largest communities in the Algarve seem to be in the Portimão, Loulé and Faro municipalities. Virtually all Gypsies in this country have Portuguese nationality.

A report last year by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) said the difficulties faced by the Roma in Portugal were mainly in the fields of employment, housing, health and education.

The ECRI said that while there were still serious human rights issues, “important indicatives have been taken to improve the situation”.

Top of the list is the national strategy, which the ECRI was pleased to note “is based on the principle that integration is a two-way process and that it involves the participation of local authorities, civil society and Roma people in all stages of design, monitoring and evaluation.”

The High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue (ACIDI), a state institute, is behind an ongoing programme aimed at improving Roma access to services and equal opportunities by introducing socio-cultural mediators to town halls.

Lagoa Councillor Anabela Simão Rocha is among those highly sensitive and sympathetic to the Roma. Far from being transitory, a Gypsy community has existed in the Lagoa area for more than five decades, she says. A number of families have been living in an integrated council housing bairro in the village of Porches within the municipality for several years.

On whether the fears and mistrust of the public are justified, she commented: “There are good and bad among all groups of people. Our experience is that Gypsies are mostly law-abiding people who deserve our respect.”

This view is shared by Samantha Birch of the Peta Birch Community Association whose Roma Family Welfare programme brings her into day-to-day contact with deprived Gypsies.

In response to whether Gypsies are proportionally responsible for more crimes of theft or drug dealing than other groups, a Polícia Judiciária spokesperson said: “Our statistical records do not take into consideration race, religion or nationality.”

João da Cruz Reis, an astute, 42-year-old pastor living in Porches whose evangelical work means he travels to Lisbon, Madeira, the Azores and Spain, told us of how attitudes and social behaviour vary from community to community.

Some Roma are more hidebound by tradition and less willing to co-operate with officialdom and the wider public than others. Attitudes are changing, but very slowly, he said.

Some families live on incomes from trading, some get by on state benefits, but the poverty suffered by others can give rise to hostile behaviour, exacerbate family difficulties and cause further inter-community friction.

“The Algarve is a region of socio-economic contrasts and asymmetries and this is also true for Roma communities living in this region,” says ACIDI High Commissioner Rosário Farmhouse.

Gypsies living in encampments devoid of basic sanitation, such as the one near the Albufeira Marina, say they would welcome the opportunity to move into council housing – but none is yet available to them.

“The true traditional way of life for us is finished. It is not like it used to be,” says José da Silva Reis, the head of the Albufeira marina community. “We have to live together with other people now. We are not discriminatory. For us it is more important to have a proper house, to have our kids in school learning to read and write so they have opportunities and jobs when they are older.

“Our family is more important now than continuing to live in this way,” he told us looking around his rough hillside settlement of shacks. “If we had to give up our free way of life with our animals for a house and a better standard of living, we would.”

Poor education and inadequate job training, plus a lack of trust on the part of employers, contribute to high levels of unemployment among Gypsies throughout Portugal. Only about one in 10 aged between 20 and 64 is in regular paid employment, concluded a recent national survey. About half of the job seekers questioned said they had experienced discrimination because of their ethnic background.

The survey indicated that more than 50% of Gypsies have had no schooling at all and are illiterate. Fewer than one in 10 has completed upper secondary education. The Gypsy leaders we spoke to wholeheartedly agree with the official view that this has to change.

Change is not coming easily. Having welcomed us into her clean and tidy two-roomed shanty home, a young woman, whose husband is serving a 10-year term in jail, explained a dilemma facing many Gypsy mothers like herself. She wanted a good education for her two daughters and was well aware that completing secondary school is now legally mandatory, but traditionally Gypsy girls are expected to get married as young as 13 or 14.

The national integration strategy hopes that by the end of the decade 30% of young Roma adults will complete secondary or occupational education, and that 2% will complete higher education.

While helping to ameliorate suffering among horses owned by Gypsies, in 2012 Peta Birch recognised the need for specialist medical help among children in encampments. Regardless of race or creed, she was determined to help them. Her family founded the Peta Birch Community Association in her memory after she was tragically killed in a car accident last year.

While currently working in close harmony with Gypsies providing health care, such as dental, ear and optical treatment, her daughter Samantha says: “In the longer term we hope to promote educational opportunities and work skills.”
The sheer scale and complexity of the situation, plus a dearth of financial and material support because of ingrained mistrust and prejudice among potential donors, makes it hard for a small private charity like the Peta Birch Community Association to operate effectively.

Despite this, the charity is determined to forge ahead and its Roma Family Welfare project will undoubtedly help bridge the racial divide.

Roma Family Welfare contacts: | 963 092 216

Exclusive by LEN PORT

Black & White photo: Luís Carmo / Colour photos: Samantha Birch