In 2016, a 24-year-old Portuguese filmmaker named Leonor Teles won the Golden Bear of the Berlin Film Festival for best short film, becoming the youngest person ever to receive the award. This in and of itself should have been news in Portugal. The real reason was the topic of the film: the habit of some shop owners of putting fake frogs in the doorsteps of their stores to prevent Romani people from entering, as it is a negative omen in the Romani community. In the film, Leonor’s goal is to destroy the frogs, which she regards as a xenophobic gesture. But off screen, she is critical of both the Romani community and the rest of society as a whole for turning their backs on each other for a feud that has lasted centuries.
The Romani people are thought to have arrived in Portugal in the 15th Century. Despite their long history in the country however, the Romani community still operates in distinct ways, with different cultural norms and practices. Without official statistics, it is difficult to estimate just how many Romani people currently live in Portugal, but the numbers are estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000 according to the Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance. Typically, Romani people in Portugal leave school prematurely, marry early, and work as street vendors. Their living standards are far below the Portuguese average and, according to a 2016 study by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, Portuguese Romani are one of the most discriminated groups in Europe. By the Romani’s own perception, it is a problem that deepened with the economic crisis in Portugal.
In recent years, there have been efforts to counter negative perceptions of Romani people. These include advocacy campaigns that show the myriad of professions in which Romani are involved, from researchers to female firefighters, and also cultural and educational associations that strive to give the Romani community opportunities it is typically denied.
One such project was called “Opré Chavalé,” which has managed to secure scholarships for young Romani, providing appropriate support to them and their families. Even though the numbers are small (only 25 students a year are likely to receive these scholarships) it was a strong start, using higher education as a means for integration and offering young Romani a way out of the precarious street vendor lifestyle. The European-wide project ROMED has also been deemed successful in the Portuguese city of Torres Vedras, bridging the gaps between the Romani community and the institutions in which they live through an appointed mediator and action groups. Both of these projects were supported by the association Letras Nómadas, which is funded by the High Commission for Migration in the context of larger investment in innovative projects that promote Romani integration.
Still, as recently as 5 May 2017, the Portuguese anti-racist organization SOS Racismo filed a discrimination complaint against a restaurant that refused to serve Romani people. Cases like these are not unusual in Portugal. Amnesty International has stated that Romani people are the main victims of discrimination in Portugal, even more so than Afro-descendants.
Romani people seem so far removed from Portuguese society in the eyes of the [Portuguese] majority; as such, blatant discriminatory speeches against them seem to have become normal. On the other hand, and contrary to what occurs in some European countries where the Romani community’s presence is more recent, the vast majority of Portuguese Romani are indigenous to Portugal and have been for centuries. Their presence is ingrained in Portugal’s popular culture and typically associated with nomad street vendors, fortune tellers, etc. However, with the increase in drug trafficking, Romani people are now being increasingly associated with that type of criminal activity as well, furthering damaging public perception of the Romani community.
Despite the tepid success of Romani integration projects, hope remains. But Portugal still has a long way to go before ensuring full equality for all its citizens. Rooted in old prejudice, the mindset of the population is not likely to change quickly. Concerns over multiculturalism and the tensions that arise from it are considered to be new phenomena in Portuguese society. However, this theory may be easily dismantled by mentioning the case of the Romani. It shows us that even Portugal, considered to be one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe in terms of demographics, has been struggling with divergent cultural frameworks for centuries.