‘With Chega, I don’t fear for myself, but for my children’: Portugal’s Roma fear the rise of the far right

Racism against the Roma community has risen over the past few years, and in the Lisbon municipality of Loures, anti-Roma politicians have won votes

Amid the shouts of children and the roar of planes passing overhead, three musicians seated in the centre of a courtyard launch into a rhythmic performance, as a group of girls with manicured nails and waist-length hair throw their hands into the air and begin to dance.

Organised by the local Roma association Techari, the event marks the end of a month dedicated to Roma culture at the Mário de Sá Carneiro middle school in Loures, a municipality north of Lisbon. But the festive atmosphere does not mask a sense of anxiety.

In Portugal’s general election last month, the far-right Chega party came third with 18 per cent of the vote. It quadrupled its representatives in parliament to 50 seats. In the multicultural area of Loures, home to some 4,000 ciganos (Roma) one of the county’s poorest communities – the party won 19 per cent of the vote, double its support in the national elections in 2022.

Support for Chega in Loures has always been slightly above the national average, reflecting a pattern across Portugal where more votes for the far-right correlate with a higher proportion of Roma in a community.


“We’ve been here in this country for more than five centuries and we still experience xenophobia,” says José Fernandes (60), president of Techari since founding it in 2020. “With Chega, I don’t fear for myself, but for my children and grandchildren.”

An imposing figure, Fernandes has felt hatred towards his community grow over the years. It was in Loures that Chega leader André Ventura first made racist remarks about the Roma when he stood for mayor on the Social Democratic Party (PSD) ticket in 2017.

At the time, Ventura claimed the ciganos “live almost exclusively off state subsidies”. He failed in his bid for mayor, but was elected a local councillor, before leaving the PSD in 2018. He founded Chega a year later. In November 2020, he was convicted of discrimination and harassment against the ciganos by the country’s Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination, which ruled that he had encouraged “hate speech” and fined him more than €400.

This “structural racism” has been legitimised by the rhetoric of the far right, says Olga Magano, a researcher at Aberta University specialising in Roma issues. Everyday racism is “deeply rooted in Portuguese society” and often perceived as “trivial, normal and legitimate”, she explains.

Bruno Gonçalves, head of the Roma cultural association Letras Nómadas and a community organiser, agrees. “Chega’s anti-Roma rhetoric has allowed Portugal’s hidden racism to come out into the open,” he says. The figures support this. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 60 per cent of Roma in Portugal felt discriminated against in 2021, up from 47 per cent in 2016.

“Today, Chega has 50 deputies. Maybe in six or seven months we’ll have another surprise election and maybe Ventura will be elected, we don’t know,” says Fernandes. “But we can’t bury our heads in the sand. We have to keep working.”

Fernandes has focused much of Techari’s work on education. In partnership with the Loures municipality, the association has 12 mediators working in five secondary schools to help integrate Roma children, encourage attendance and create a more positive image of the school environment – the first such initiative for Portugal.

Nuno Correia, principal at the Maria Keil school, confirms their work has considerably improved attendance and children’s behaviour, benefiting not only Roma, whose level of education is far below the national average, but also other minorities.

While Fernandes and the mediators emphasise the improvements they have achieved, the situation for Roma remains precarious, starting with poor housing and a lack of jobs. Fernandes says nothing was done in the decade after 2010, though the arrival of a new mayor in 2021 has meant construction of social housing has resumed to ease overcrowding.

The municipality says it has implemented the European Union’s strategic plan of 2020 to support Roma communities. However, Loures holds local elections again at the end of 2025, which, given the current trajectory, could see another shift right in the political landscape. “The problem is not just the 50 deputies that Chega now has, but also the support they have at the local level,” says Fernandes.

Piménio Ferreira of SOS Racismo, another Portuguese NGO, says local partnerships like Techari’s are good but not enough. “It’s too weak to change anything. What we need is a national policy to combat structural racism against the ciganos.”

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