Fire in overcrowded apartment exposes housing crisis for migrants in Portugal


A fire in an overcrowded apartment in central Lisbon, where around 20 migrants lived, helped to expose the severe housing crisis faced by those coming from abroad to work in Portugal. Against a backdrop of record inflation and a shortage of rental housing, many are forced into precarious and overcrowded housing.

The fire, which was reported to firefighters at 20:37 last Saturday (5), caused two deaths, both Indian citizens, including a 14-year-old. Among the 14 wounded taken to the hospital, there are also people from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Argentina.

The authorities are investigating the fire, which occurred in a property classified as T0, a European typology that indicates that the apartment did not have any bedrooms. Several mattresses and bunk beds were found at the scene.

Among the situations analyzed is a complaint that the apartment would work with a system called “hot bed”. In this modality, used mainly by immigrants with little financial conditions, places are rented in shifts. That is: the same bed can be occupied by one person in the morning and by another person at night.

The high price of housing and the shortage of homes in the Portuguese real estate market, which already significantly affect the Portuguese middle class, have even more serious effects on the immigrant community, especially those who have been in the country for a short time.

A survey carried out in several European cities by the Casafari real estate platform indicated that Lisbon was the place where the value of rents rose the most in the last year. According to the report, prices in the Portuguese capital grew by 36.9% between December 2021 and the same month of 2022.

The generalized increase in the cost of living, with emphasis on the price of housing, pushes many foreigners to precarious housing. In support groups and on social media, there are increasing reports of despair in search of a roof over their heads.

According to the last Census of the country, carried out in 2021, more than a third of the foreign population in Portugal (37.7%) lived in overcrowded accommodation – in which the number of habitable rooms (of at least 4 m²) was insufficient to the number and demographic profile of residents. Among the Portuguese, only 17.2% lived in these conditions.

Although the problem is more serious among Indians and Nepalese, with respectively 74.2% and 72% of citizens in these conditions, about 34.1% of Brazilians in the European country live in overcrowded houses.

The president of the Solidariedade Imigrante association, Timóteo Macedo, criticized the authorities for their lack of action to deal with the issue. “There are no decent public policies to solve these problems,” he said,

Macedo also blames the lack of supervision over the various precarious and overcrowded accommodation in the center of Lisbon, remembering that decent housing is part of the set of human rights.

Overcrowded apartments in poor condition represent a risk for residents and also for the neighborhood. In traditional neighborhoods in the center of the Portuguese capital, such as Mouraria and Arroios, many residents are already apprehensive about the situation.

“Everyone knows [da situação precária dos imigrantes] and nobody does anything. Just walk down the street and look inside the houses: they’re just bunk beds!”, says retiree Margarida Cardoso, 74, who lives on a street close to the fire site

“Last month, in the apartment opposite mine, which has two bedrooms and a small living room, there were more than 40 people. Now it has decreased, there must be only 15, but it’s always like that. In a little while, the tragedy could be with us”, complain.

In the last two years, the axis of Avenida Almirante Reis, known as a concentration point for foreign communities in the center of the capital, has registered at least ten major fires, according to a survey carried out by the newspaper Público.

The commander of the Lisbon Volunteer Firefighters, Vasco Alves, considers that the situation is related to the terrible conditions in which many of the foreigners live. “The problem basically involves the large concentration of immigrants, mainly from Southeast Asia, in that area. Basically, people live there in large crowds. And that presents us with a problem in terms of security,” he said, in an interview with Portuguese diary.

Unlike most previous fires, last Saturday’s fire had wide repercussions among the public and has already spilled over into the country’s political life. In recent days, the site has received a pilgrimage of politicians from all political spectrums, from the radical left to the far right.

The subject was also the subject of publications on the social networks of several deputies.

“May the fire in Mouraria, which killed so many unprotected migrants, at least serve to shake our consciences. Decent housing is everyone’s right”, said the president of Parliament, Augusto Santos Silva, of the Socialist Party, the same as the first Minister, António Costa.

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