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Madrid’s hidden city slums

30 October 2018
The slum occupies land owned by Adif

Under the first beam of sunlight on 3 October, diggers began tearing through people’s bedroom walls. By mid afternoon, around 50 makeshift homes had been razed to the ground, and around 80 people had been moved on.

The people who had been living in the quietly growing shanty town behind the Museo del Ferrocarril were not left entirely destitute, however; they were reportedly offered sheltered accommodation. The city council acknowledged that these people were legal EU migrants and entitled to social housing, but many apparently refused it, opting instead to pick up their belongings and begin searching for somewhere else to build a home.

ONE YEAR AGO

It was a still afternoon and columns of smoke were rising from a row of houses made from doors, cardboard, plastic sheeting and scavenged planks of wood.

A teenage boy with a shopping trolley skipped out of the bushes and into the occupied land he called home. Several children ranging from toddlers to teens scrambled excitedly towards him, pulling out sheets, old appliances, packaged food and wires.

Some objects were quickly designated by the kids as their new toys, while the rest of the items were siphoned into what appeared to be the family home. Suddenly, music began to play – it sounded like Balkan folk music – and lunch was served.

It’s believed that the majority of people who’d been living here were ethnic Roma who had recently migrated from Eastern Europe. Some left their country of origin with optimism for what lay ahead – jobs, education and integration – while others fled discrimination, exclusion and unlawful persecution. However, what awaited them in Madrid may not have been much different to what they had left behind.

For centuries, the Roma community have been institutionally and socially segregated. Integration, even if wished for, can be a struggle. Some, including those who were living the Delicias slum, prefer the freedom of living in their own spaces, however unconventional it may seem.

Living in apparent transition is a long-standing way of life and an increasingly popular movement across the world, but one that is relatively misunderstood. What appears to be reluctance to follow the rules may well be a generations-old defence mechanism. Many we see living in makeshift housing in abandoned land are in limbo, seeking shelter while working on establishing a regular income.

Old, abandoned rail tracks have become a pathway from the roadside to the slum.

The fence below has been hopped over so many times, the paint is coming away. Beyond the fence is a well-trodden footpath and a clearance in the hedge.

As the slum grew, the landowner of these disused railway tracks – the rail infrastructure company Adif – began drawing up plans to dismantle it in cooperation with the municipal government.

Following the decision to clear the Delicias slum, some of the former residents were allocated flats, but others stuck to what they knew best, wrapped what belongings they could carry in bed sheets and disappeared into the cityscape.

TODAY

The slum has been cleared, and former entryways to the previously occupied land have been fenced off.

What’s left behind is a dusty open space littered with broken glass, scraps of furniture and toys, and remnants of habitation, such as coat pegs and picture frames.

A ukulele with a strap in the colours of the Spanish flag lies dumped on top of twigs, rubbish and broken glass, just as the diggers left it.

In the photo below, you can see parts of a concrete wall blackened by old fire pits. These are where food was cooked and where heat from the fire would billow into the homes in front.

The Delicias slum may have been cleared, but many of its former occupants simply stepped out of the diggers’ way and set up camp elsewhere. We often don’t notice where they live because their homes are under bridges, behind neglected monuments and in disused industrial spaces. These areas are notoriously difficult to access by foot, but are often visible from overpasses and train lines, and they’re all over Madrid.

THE CAÑADA REAL

Just 15 minutes from the centre of Madrid lies Europe’s largest shanty town, The Cañada Real, where many Roma families live. Read about it here.

ROMA IN SPAIN TODAY

According to a study by the European Roma and Travellers Forum:

  • Seventy percent of Roma over the age of 16 are illiterate and high drop-out rates at different educational levels still remain a significant challenge to overcome.
  • The number of Roma children who drop out of school is 65%.
  • Completion of secondary-school is just 5%.
  • The average age at which Roma children leave school is approximately 12.
  • School failure rate for Roma children is five times higher than children from non-Roma families.
  • Nearly 70% of Spanish Roma adults are illiterate.
  • The life span of Roma people is 10 years less than that of the majority population while the infant mortality rate is three times higher.
  • More than 12% if Roma people live in segregated neighbourhoods, with indecent and low standards, and with an average of 2.4 more people per room. According to the Roma Inclusion Index of 2015, 1 % of Roma are homeless, 4% have no running water and 9% no electricity.

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For five years, I’ve been driven to bring you real-life stories told by the very communities that don’t receive the coverage they deserve. Understand how racism, exploitation and poverty are pre-assigned fates chosen by those in power, and how communities experiencing this are overcoming it together. 

You may have noticed that, unlike the vast majority of publications, MNF remains free of ads, sponsors and rich investors. Independence is everything and I will not be influenced by those in a position of privilege or power. Therefore I invite only my audience to support this project and only you to help me keep doing what I do. 

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