Henrique Almeida: Pandemic exposes plight of Portugal’s African migrants

Makeshift settlements in Lisbon are an extreme example of the struggles of minorities in the world’s richest continent, writes Henrique Almeida
Henrique Almeida: Pandemic exposes plight of Portugal’s African migrants

Makeshift settlements in Lisbon are an extreme example of the struggles of minorities in the world’s richest continent, writes Henrique Almeida

African migrants crowd the night shore of Djibouti city, trying to capture inexpensive cell signals from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad.
African migrants crowd the night shore of Djibouti city, trying to capture inexpensive cell signals from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad.

Neide Jordão shoves a broken refrigerator and a stack of bags with dirty laundry to the side as she makes her way out of her tiny apartment in an unfinished brick building. Living with her three sons, two daughters, a sister, and 63-year-old mother, Jordão, 35, sleeps on a couch and struggles with chronic breathing problems caused by the moisture from leaking water. She emerges onto an unpaved street in Lisbon lined with battered cars and ramshackle sheds.

The scene is more evocative of the poverty she escaped from as a child in Africa than of the capital of one of Europe’s former colonial powers.

“I feel like we’ve all been forgotten — it’s painful. I often wonder if we’d be better off back in Angola," says Jordão, trying to tidy up among the debris of discarded furniture and cardboard outside her home.

Lisbon has a secret world on its fringes that’s now being exposed as the health and economic implications of the coronavirus crisis shine a spotlight on the plight of minorities across the western world.

Lisbon’s 'Jamaica' neighborhood is home to 160 families mostly of African descent and stands out as an extreme example of life on the world’s wealthiest continent and the social disparities that have been thrust onto the political agenda in the era of coronavirus. The last time television crews arrived in the area — known officially as Vale de Chícharos — was after video footage of police officers beating some of the area’s residents triggered demonstrations in 2019.

The government has identified 472 of what it calls clusters of inadequate housing — including makeshift shanties and decrepit buildings — scattered across the city, where residents need to be rehoused. Some of the worst neighborhoods are on the outskirts, far from the glitzy condominiums in the city center snapped up by foreign investors, including rich Brazilians seeking European passports under a 'golden visa' program.

“There was a narrative until recently that the shantytowns in our country had already disappeared. With the pandemic this reality has become even more evident,” says Rita Silva, the head of Habita, a Lisbon organisation that advocates for housing rights.

While Portugal has managed to contain Covid-19 better than neighboring Spain, most of the new infections have been in the Lisbon region and particularly in poorer neighborhoods. The spike in cases in places such as Jamaica, about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the centre of the capital, made headlines in Portuguese media at the end of May and sparked a debate among politicians over the urgency of doing more to fight the city’s housing crisis, especially now that the country is in a recession.

The government of Prime Minister António Costa, a former mayor of Lisbon, says it recognised the gravity of the problem in Jamaica long before coronavirus struck. It’s been rehousing families since 2018, starting with those in the most structurally dangerous buildings, and the process is ongoing, Ana Pinho, Portugal’s secretary of state for housing, said in an email.

A property boom turned Lisbon into one of Western Europe’s hottest markets, while a rise in short-term rentals catering to tourists exacerbated Lisbon’s housing crisis by reducing the supply of affordable homes. Social housing accounts for just 2% of the stock of rental units in Portugal, compared with 14% in France and 4% in Spain.

“There has been a historical failure of the state in Portugal to guarantee citizens the right to decent housing,” Pinho said.

The unspoken reality is that it’s minority communities that are being hit hardest in a country that’s drawn generations of immigrants from former colonies.

While Costa has defended the arrival of more migrants, the country still has a long way to go to end racial discrimination, says Cristina Roldão, a sociologist in Lisbon. She says Black minorities struggle to get on the housing ladder and are denied access to better-paid jobs. The United Nations has called out Portugal in the past for its unequal treatment of minorities, most recently in a 2017 report by the special rapporteur on adequate housing.

“A big part of the racism that exists in Portugal is directed at black people who are Portuguese nationals. This is a problem that isn’t openly debated and has to do with Portugal’s colonial past," said Roldão.

Indeed, the US protests that spread to Europe have morphed into a backlash against the inglorious chapters in the continent’s past.

In Lisbon, António Vieira, a 17th-century preacher who lived in Brazil when Portugal was shipping slaves from Africa across the Atlantic, was the target. His statue was vandalised earlier this month, and the word 'de-colonize' was daubed in red.

Portugal was the last European nation to surrender its African territories. The military coup that overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974 ushered in independence for Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. But later civil wars generated a surge of Africans heading to Lisbon in search of a better life.

Immigrants continued to arrive after Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 and embarked on major infrastructure projects during the 1990s. The men mostly took up jobs in construction, while the women worked as housemaids. Many families ended up building their own homes out of wood and any brick and metal they could find to create the makeshift neighborhoods on the outskirts of Lisbon. Others moved into unfinished buildings like the multistory brick structure in Jamaica.

While Portugal has demolished some shantytowns and rehoused some of their residents, the list of candidates for new homes has kept on growing. There are about 14,000 families living in inadequate housing conditions in Lisbon, according to Simone Tulumello, an assistant research professor of geography at the Institute of Social Sciences in the city.

Before the pandemic, Portugal was enjoying one of its highest growth rates in decades. Now, the International Monetary Fund projects the economy will contract 8% this year after expanding 2.2% in 2019. But the virus has made it clear that any recovery in Portugal needs to include the African families living in shacks or unfinished buildings, says Silva, the head of the Habita housing organisation.

Jordão has been on the waiting list to move from her cramped apartment for almost three decades. She says they were close to moving last year when families were being rehoused, but it didn’t come to fruition: “The local authorities promised to relocate my family to a three-bedroom apartment back in 1994. I’m still waiting.”

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