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IMMIGRATION

In pictures: Meet the American street photographer documenting Madrid’s invisible population

When Michael Damanti, a photographer from the United States, moved to Madrid five years ago with his Spanish wife and two children he expected to make a bunch of new friends in the new city.

In pictures: Meet the American street photographer documenting Madrid's invisible population
A Romani girl begging in central Madrid. All photos: Michael Damanti

But what he didn’t count on was that he would meet a group of people that would have such a profound influence on his everyday life and work.


The man behind the lens: Damanti taking a selfie with his new friends.

“In 2015 I was an outsider in this country, trying to learn the language and find work. A chance encounter soon changed that, forming the beginnings of a long-term photographic series about Romani population in Europe, he told The Local.

“Walking home one day from another disappointing day of cliche photos, I came across a Roma Girl sleeping on the ground holding an old change cup. Her name was Sibella. I knelt down to take her photograph and as I stood up I noticed another Roma-girl walking right towards me saying, “What are you doing? That is my sister!” That was the day I met the “Cobadin-Girls of Sol”.

“Over the next four years I met with them every day, carefully documenting their story and gradually becoming absorbed into their lives. We have been through births, deaths, arrests, fights and the day to day struggles we all endure.”

What he has produced is a remarkable set of photographs of a group of people who are at best invisible to society and at worst, the frequent targets of abuse.

At first, he approached them with handmade signs with witty slogans, such as 'freewifi' and '#Brexit: Keep calm and give me money' to replace the ineffectual ones they had written themselves.

“This was the way into their lives, I noticed their signs were incredibly long (5-6 lines) and 100 percent trite and boring.  No one was reading them. So I offerend alternatives, lighthearted signs with quick simple messages in English for the tourists. This began the friendship.”

But it soon developed into a deeper friendship, one in which they invited him to dine with the family group as they cooked up stews in cardboard shelters under the roadside bridges where they sleep at night.

He even introduced them to the concept of birthday parties, after realising that for the most part, they didn’t even know how old they were, let alone celebrate the occasion.

“I happened to ask one of the girls when her birthday was and she didn't know.  I couldn't believe it so I asked all of them….. one by one they each shook their heads and asked me why it mattered to know that,” he explained.  

“I read their ID's and realized one of the girl's birthdays was in a week.  So I bought a cupcake and a candle and introduced them to the concept of birthday parties.  They had no idea what to do. I lit the candle, sang happy birthday and then stood their as they all stared at me.  

“I had to tell the girls to blow out the candle. Little by little they embraced the birthday ritual and now they all want a party on their special day.”

What has consistently surprised him is the level of racism they endure on a daily basis.

“Some men make sexual advances on the girls. That's the worst. I've seen old women spit at them.  I've seen shop owners throw drinks in a pregnant girl's face just for begging near his shop. But the one that stands out most was the black eye on Sevda's face given to her by two drunk teenagers as she slept under a bridge while seven month's pregnant,” he recounts.  

“The nastiest comments always come from elderly people or football fans.”

But sometimes he has witnessed people showing them kindness too. “However, there are a fair share of delightful gestures and comments from others.  People bring them clothes and food or buy them ice cream.  That’s a breath of fresh air.”

As a result, Damanti has become an advocate for Romani rights, and will be talking about the issue at an event organised by Madrid For Refugees.

“Originally I got involved simply to take an interesting photograph but it has taken on a life of its own. I expected to photograph the people in Sol, but I did not expect to like them so much.   So I'd like to help them if I can… be that bringing awareness to their marginalized existance or just bringing them clothes. But most importantly, treating them as friends and giving them the same respect I would to you or anyone else.”

To see more of Michael Damanti's photographs visit his website and for tickets for the Madrid For Refugees event on Saturday February 22 click HERE.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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