Human rights | Romania

Roma pushed to the dirty outskirts of the city

Years ago, the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca resettled hundreds of Roma - next to a huge garbage dump. Some families fought back and managed to attract international attention

Linda Greta Zsiga and her family were forcibly relocated to Pata Rât. Many people live there in makeshift shelters without water and electricity

Thirteen years ago, dramatic scenes took place in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca. On a rainy Monday morning in June not a hint of that remains. The library park is situated on a hill between grey apartment blocks in the Mărăști district.

There is colourful playground which is currently deserted, the only movement a swing creaking in the wind. Blue sports equipment stands forlornly next to a newly laid cycle path. The large cross on the roof of the Orthodox Faculty towers over the site.

Nothing suggests that this place holds painful memories, but shortly before Christmas in 2010, the largest forced eviction in Cluj's recent history took place here. Previously, there were 76 Roma families living at the site of this now seemingly abandoned park, some of them for several generations.

“Two days before, they told us to pack our bags, then the bulldozers came,” Linda Greta Zsiga remembers.She lived with her family in Coastei Street, which was demolished for the library park. The houses belonged to the city’s stock of municipal social housing. The approximately 320 residents were forcibly relocated.

“The housing market has become problematic in recent years. Those living precariously, including many Roma, are often the first to be displaced”

Their new home? A few prefabricated houses outside the city limits, on the site of Romania's largest open dump, Pata Rât. “It stank terribly, there was always a pile of rubbish burning somewhere, there were no proper sanitary facilities, no electricity, nothing but rubbish,” Zsiga describes the conditions.

At first glance, the events around Pata Rât do not seem to fit in with the image of a cosmopolitan cultural city that Cluj-Napoca has built up. Every year, the music festivals “UNTOLD” and “Electric Castle” as well as the Transylvanian International Film Festival (tiff ) attract large streams of visitors to the picturesque Transylvanian old town.

But according to sociologist and housing activist George Zamfir, there is no contradiction. The housing market has become notably more problematic in recent years. Those living precariously, including many Roma, are often the first to be displaced.  

“Soon the centre of Cluj will be full of tourists but no inhabitants,” says Zamfir, explaining that the majority of the city’s population approves of forced evictions from centrally located areas, as long as they affect Roma. Prejudice against the second-largest Romanian minority, which makes up between three and ten percent of the population depending on the estimate, is still widespread.

Woman, seated, holding a sleeping child

Maria Stoica wants to ensure that her one-year-old son Matei does not grow up the same unhealthy circumstances as she did

 In a nationwide survey conducted in 2020, almost 70 per cent of respondents said they distrusted members of the Roma. “Nobody misses us in the city centre. We have to live by the rubbish because many people think we belong there,” says Maria Stoica bitterly. The 28-year-old Roma woman has spent most of her life in Pata Rât. Since becoming a mother herself, the conditions have become increasingly difficult for her to bear.

“There is rubbish, bacteria and polluted water everywhere - not even animals should live here. I don't want my children to have to grow up like me,” she stresses. She is also very worried about the health risks. “In my neighbourhood, so many people die young, many get cancer. Hardly anyone is over 65,” Stoica says.

In 2023, between 1,700 and 1,800 people live in Pata Rât, almost all of them Roma. People making a home near this landfill site is not a new phenomenon. Since the late 1970s, some Roma settled there out of economic need. They collected recyclables to earn a living. Only about 11 percent of waste is recycled nationwide; a large part ends up in open dumps.

“It was as if we had been thrown out of society”

Yet the Roma who were evicted from Coastei Street in 2010 had no connection to waste processing, says Linda Zsiga, a resident at the time. Many people worked in the city centre, their children went to school or kindergarten there. After the resettlement to Pata Rât, this was all but impossible.

“It was as if we had been thrown out of society,” says Zsiga. “In the modular houses, 12 of us lived in 16 square metres. There was a communal bathroom with cold water that we had to share with the people from the three neighbouring modules,” Zsiga recalls.

These descriptions are contradicted by Emil Boc, the then mayor of Cluj-Napoca, in a public statement: “The municipality did the right thing in 2010 and is still working to improve the situation of Roma living in Pata Rât.” According to the ex-mayor, the families had been relocated from unsuitable flats in the city centre to better accommodation with electricity, water and heating.

“Environmental racism” is what researcher Enikö Vincze calls what is happening repeatedly not just in Cluj-Napoca but all over Romania: Roma, homeless and unemployed people are pushed out of those parts of the cities that play a role in public life and tourism. If new living space is allocated to them, it is often in unattractive and even unsanitary areas, as is the case with the Pata Rât rubbish dump.

“According to existing housing laws, housing units must be at least a thousand metres away from toxic materials,” she says. Yet the modules built by the city are only 200 metres away from a disused landfill for medical waste meaning the law was broken with the forced relocation.

For this reason, Vincze, together with activists from Pata Rât and a network of civil rights activists from the action platform “Desire”, filed a lawsuit against those responsible for the eviction in 2018.

Colorful playground

The empty library park of Cluj-Napoca: nothing here suggests that 76 families lost their homes here just a few years ago

In the course of the lawsuit, particulate matter pollution and the composition of the leachate from the landfill were measured. The results show that the air quality and the permissible concentrations of hydrogen sulphide significantly exceed the limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which also apply in Romania.

Health surveys in the settlements of Pata Rât from 2021 show that at that time more than half of the people there suffered from shortness of breath, coughing, headaches and dizziness - possible consequences of the environmental pollution caused by the landfill. These findings prompted the activists to file the lawsuit but they are still waiting for a judgement.

According to housing activist George Zamfir, the biggest problem is that no political party wants to address the unpopular housing issue, particularly not a year before Romania's parliamentary and presidential elections, due to take place in December 2024. “We are here in one of the richest cities in Romania. Yet there is less and less affordable housing because you can’t win elections with the issue.”

Between 2015 and 2019, 15,587 new flats were built in the city - but among them there is not a single social housing unit. Currently, applicants for social housing wait on average up to twenty years for a flat.

While little is happening on the urban development side, the activist alliance in Cluj-Napoca has managed to attract international attention.

“I am so fed up that we Roma are always discriminated against. We are human beings. We have the right to adequate housing"

Amnesty International criticised the evictions, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mediated between those affected and city leaders. With financial support from Swedish-Romanian development cooperation, housing for sixty families could be bought by July 2023.

“At least there was one positive side aspect of the big eviction: the living situation of the people in Pata Rât was no longer invisible, but made international headlines,” Vincze recalls. Through protest actions, Roma come into contact with academics and housing activists with students.

The festival, Khetane, was created to bring people from all over the city to Pata Rât for concerts and exchange. The internet radio station Radio Pata Se Pune! broadcasts live from a container studio on site and provides residents with journalistic expertise.

Like many others, Maria Stoica, who grew up in Pata Rât, was politicised by the years of protest. “I am so fed up that we Roma are always and everywhere discriminated against. We are human beings. We have the right to adequate housing,” she says. Today she supports people from her neighbourhood when they fail in complicated social applications.

As traumatic as the eviction in 2010 was for those affected, it marked the birth of a local housing justice movement based on anti-racist solidarity between people of different ethnic groups and social classes. Currently, the activists are working on a monument so that the fate of the Roma from Pata Rât remains visible in the city centre; a model already exists.

It is to stand exactly where the bulldozers began demolition 13 years ago, between the fitness equipment and the playground: a miniature of the former houses, true to scale, so that in future, those who stroll through Mărăști Library Park will be reminded of the history of this place.

This text was written as part of the Southeast Europe Research Fellowship of the International Journalism Programs (IJP). Translated from German by Louise East