Roma communities driven from Romania's booming city of Cluj-Napoca say the authorities treat them like human garbage. Pata Rat is the country's biggest landfill and long one of its most glaring environmental sins. For decades, pollution leached from untreated waste and garbage fires blazed. Under pressure from the European Union, the city began work on closing the site in 2015. Some 2.5 million metric tons (2.8 million US tons) of waste, accumulated over 70 years. Two "temporary storage" landfills set up beside the old one in 2015 are still growing steadily, and experts say the old waste was never properly dealt with.
1,500 Roma people are still living here with the environmental hazard on their doorstep.
This was not an ecological landfill; it was not built in line with European standards," said Ciprian-Valentin Nodis, a researcher from northern Romania and founding member of the Interethnic Association of Dumitrița.
"All these toxic substances went into the soil, into the groundwater. Everything in the area is polluted."
The Roma residents of Pata Rat began to arrive in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some were driven by poverty to move to the landfill and work as waste pickers, but most have come in successive waves of evictions since Cluj-Napoca began to see a real estate boom in the 2000s. The last was in 2010, when local authorities evicted 350 inhabitants from Coastei Street near the city center. Their new home was to be a complex of small, modular units nestled between Pata Rat's existing camps.
The Roma community on Coastei Street was well integrated. They had been there for generations, they paid rent and utilities on their publicly owned homes, and their children attended local schools and kindergartens. Yet suddenly they were being dumped on the city's trash heap. "They considered us garbage, not humans," said Linda Greta Zsiga, "and they thought we deserve to live there."
Seven out of ten Romanians said they don't trust the Roma.
Between 20% and 30% said Roma people have too many rights, that the state should be allowed to use violence against Roma, or that discrimination and hate speech against the Roma should not be punished.
Such attitudes are not unique to Romania. Across Europe, racism against the continent's largest ethnic minority results in denial of basic civil rights, exclusion from employment and public services, and — perhaps most strikingly — the marginalization of Roma communities to areas that lack adequate water, sanitation and waste management.
A study published last year by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) on ""environmental racism against Roma communities in Central and Eastern Europe" found that the Roma were "disproportionately exposed to environmental degradation and pollution stemming from waste dumps and landfills, contaminated sites, or dirty industries."
The EEB study describes one of the major factors in environmental racism against the Roma as forced eviction from "places with high economic value."
The Coastei community wasn't given a reason for their eviction. But Zsiga has no doubt why they were moved. "They wanted to 'clean' Cluj of Roma," she said. "Now very few Roma still live in the city."
A 2012 report by the UN Development Program found that 22% of adults living at Pata Rat suffered from chronic disease or some form of disability. Researchers documented a high incidence of skin infections, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure and heart and stomach problems, and a report by the European Roma Rights Centre found that over two years following their eviction, reported health problems more than doubled among the Coastei community.
An NGO worker in the area said respiratory diseases remain common, including among children. And economically, the closure of the dump has made life in Pata Rat even harder.
Residents had been taking matters into their own hands. In 2012, Zsiga and others from Coastei camp set up an association that's working with other NGOs to campaign for housing solutions for Pata Rat, and suing the authorities over the evictions. They are currently awaiting a decision on their case from the European Court of Human Rights.