LISBON — The western European country of Portugal is a prominent member within the EU, has a population of 10.3 million and is a constitutional democracy. That is why it may be ironic to consider that human rights in Portugal should, at best, be described as a relatively balanced mixture of positive and negative, with the positive side having a slight advantage.
While the Portuguese constitution allows for most basic liberties such as freedom of the press, religion and assembly or movement, some human rights in Portugal continue to cause serious problems for the country. Below are three human rights in Portugal that are frequently abused, and details describing their extent and severity.
1. Prison Conditions
Data from a 2014 report from the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics reflects that Portugal was ranked eighth when it came to having the most overcrowded prisons in all of Europe. As of 2016, the total prison population was 13,775, but according to the 2010 U.S. State Department’s Portugal Human Rights Report, the country has the capacity to house only 11,921 inmates.
The extent to which overcrowding takes place led to unsanitary conditions, poor hygiene and inadequate nourishment and medical care. This lack of medical care has led to a high rate of mostly drug-related, infectious diseases within prisons, which is one of the largest problems inmates face. In 2009, approximately ten percent of the prison population had HIV/AIDS, and 57 percent of the prison population were positive for Hepatitis C.
The structural integrity of many facilities was also called into question, with many of prison facilities described as “degrading or deplorable.” In addition, the country has a well-documented history of violence and mistreatment toward inmates from prison staff. Allegations from inmates include, but are not limited to, completely unwarranted kicks, punches and other forms of physical violence, and in many cases inmates have required medical treatment.
In Portugal, the demographic discriminated against the most is undoubtedly people of Romani descent, or more commonly known as “gypsies.” The Romani people crossed the border from the neighbouring country of Spain as early as the second half of the 15th century, and due to differences in lifestyle choice, cultural practices, ethnicity and more, have been the target of severe discrimination ever since.
In January 2016 the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights released a survey on “European Union Minorities and Discrimination.” The survey found that 71 percent of Romani people said they had been discriminated against within the last five years and 47 percent said the same about the last 12 months. The survey also found that Romani’s in Portugal have the most trouble when trying to find employment, with 47 percent of them stating they were discriminated against while searching for a job.
Additionally, only 36 percent of respondents said that they were aware of the existence of laws banning discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, socioeconomic status or other factors.
The government has also consistently made efforts to relocate the Romani people to encampments on the outskirts of bigger cities far away from public services and transportation, affecting many children’s access to education, and everyone’s access to clean drinking water and electricity. The locations of the homes are also often hidden behind large hills, have no roads near them and often times have walls that were built between them and the larger city in efforts to separate them from the rest of the population.
In addition, the already-substandard homes are usually far too small because they are often built without taking into account the size of the family.
Lydia Gall, legal advisor for the European Roma Rights Centre, spent five years researching the treatment of the Romani people in Portugal, and found that the housing situation was the most shocking. In the case of the Rio Maior camp, about 85 km north of Lisbon, Gall said that “14 gypsy families were placed in precarious wooden houses, on top of a hazardous coal mine and separated from the rest of the population by a dense forest.”
She also mentioned the example of Bragan, a camp in the northern area of the country, in which “a community was kicked out of its camp by the authorities, who told them they could live in the garbage dump.”
3. Human Trafficking
The U.S. State Department’s 2010 Human Trafficking Report described Portugal to be “a destination, transit and source country” for human trafficking victims. The victims in Portugal come from Brazil, Africa and eastern Europe. While men are typically subjected to forced labor, women are often forced into prostitution and children typically forced into labor or told to beg on the street to support their families.
While the main destination for trafficking victims in this region is Spain, in 2015 the Observatory of Human Trafficking said that the number of reported cases in Portugal had more than tripled in the past year with 58 documented cases, two of which involved children. However, the report does note that realistically, this number is likely to be much higher, as many cases go unreported.
From the 2010 U.S. State Department’s report and into the present, it does not appear that much as changed for the better for these three human right issues in Portugal. Though there are certainly countries in the world that are far less favorable than Portugal, that should not indicate that human rights in Portugal could not be made better.
– Hunter Mcferrin