Marginalisation and racism force hundreds of Roma in Romania to live in Pata Rât, Europe’s largest waste-related ghetto.

Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s fourth largest city, has the dubious distinction of housing Europe’s largest waste-related ghetto. Around 1,500 people, mostly Roma, live in four different informal settlements around the Pata Rât landfill, situated a few kilometres away from the city centre.  

All four of Pata Rât’s Roma communities live in a degraded and toxic environment, though some differences exist in terms of access to water and sanitation. Leaks from the landfill pollute the soil and ooze into the ground water, while noxious fumes are emitted when the waste is burnt. Many of the inhabitants suffer from regular ear, eye and skin infections, asthma and bronchitis, high blood pressure.

“The environment in Pata Rât is very toxic and as long as these people right to live in a clean environment is violated, than nothing is solved and their health and lives will be in danger,” says Candoi Andras Julien, who works for the Inter-Community Development Association in Cluj, where he takes care of the children from the landfill community, transporting them to school and back.

Dallas without the glamour

The first community, known informally as ‘Dallas’, was formed in the 1960s by poor Roma families who settled near the dump in order to make a living by finding and selling recyclable materials from the industrial area and the landfill. However, the ghetto has grown over the years as more and more Roma families have been forced to move there from different part of Cluj-Napoca, either as a result of economic and social difficulties or due to excessive evictions driven by the city authorities.

In the winter of 2010, following a municipal decision, 76 Roma families, counting 350 people, who had been in the city centre of Cluj-Napoca were evicted from their homes and relocated next to the waste dump.  

The parents had jobs in the city, were integrated in the community and their children attending school in the neighbourhood, which made their displacement highly disruptive to their lives and livelihood. The affected families were forced to start from scratch and, considering the isolated location of the landfill, many of them could not find work or were unable to send their children to school anymore.

“We were a socially integrated Roma community that didn’t need any help or any financial aid or something like that. Most of the adults had jobs,” Lind Claudia Zsiga told Nodis Ciprian Valentin, a researcher working with the EEB on a two-year pilot project funded by the Open Society Foundation. The project is mapping the environmental discrimination experienced by Roma communities and finding ways to promote policy changes that will reduce the negative health impacts.

Racism’s toxic fallout

The social, economic and environmental issues around Pata Rât are complex, but one thing is certain: the situation is the result of long-standing structural violence, including environmental racism, against the affected communities, according to the recent report ‘Falling through the cracks: Exposing the inequalities in the EU and beyond’, which was produced by SDG Watch Europe, of which the EEB is a member.

In 2014, the Cluj-Napoca County Court declared illegal the city authorities’ decision to displace the families from Coastei Street and force them to live under such conditions. Three years later, the European Commission took Romania to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for its failure to close and rehabilitate 68 illegal landfills, including Pata Rât, even though it had received support from the Regional Development Fund to replace them with a new waste disposal system. In 2018, the ECJ ruled in favour of the Commission.

Pata Rât is an example of environmental racism, that is, a situation in which members of a particular socio-ethnic group are forced to live in a contaminated or unhealthy location and are exposed to greater health risks and more unfavourable conditions than the general population. Across the European Union, environmental racism is one of many aspects of antigypsism.

Since 2009, the Pata-Cluj project, with funding from Norway, has been actively working at desegregating the marginalised communities of Pata, including facilitating schooling for its children and employment for the adults, as well as pushing for the construction of social housing. “If you want to solve the social inclusion of the Roma from Pata Rât you definitely have to move them away from that place,” says Dan Petacq Alexandru, the president of Romano Suno, the Roma Students from Cluj Association. “You cannot socially integrate a population if you keep them next to a mountain of garbage, there is nothing in there, no access to utilities, only pollution.”