Two dead, 14 injured: victims described as “foreigners” were all living in same building (see updated report below)
A 14-year-old boy was one of the fatal victims of a fire that broke out in a ground floor division of a house in the Mouraria district of Lisbon last night.
A 50-year-old man is also understood to have died in the blaze, which began in the early evening on Saturday, leaving the three-storey building uninhabitable.
14 people have had to be treated in hospital – most for smoke inhalation – among them four children.
President Marcelo has lamented the loss of human life, after being in touch with Lisbon mayor Carlos Moedas who attended the scene and ensured that all those rendered homeless had a place to stay overnight.
A neighbour questioned by reporters described a space that would normally have been suitable for one couple and a child, having so many people living in it that he couldn’t understood how they all managed to fit.
Fire commander José Calheiras described the occupants as two Argentine nationals and 10 people from Bangladesh. It has since emerged that there were more like 37 people living in the building, most of them from Bangladesh and India.
The causes of the fire were not immediately clear, and are now being investigated. A subsequent report has suggested the fire may have started in the kitchen, with the ‘response’ being simply to have shut the door (leaving the fire to spread)…
Firefighters reached the scene very quickly after the alarm was sounded around 8.30pm, but even then locals were already involved in helping occupants flee the building through various windows.
The young boy who died appears to have only recently arrived in Portugal from the Punjab. His body, and that of the 50-year-old man, were found in cramped bunks that had been constructed, allowing for occupants to ‘sleep in shifts’, according to Correio da Manhã.
The theory is that the two dead will have been overcome by smoke while they slept.
Immigrant fire deaths expose failings in Portugal’s ‘welcome’ to migrant workers
A 14-year-boy and a 50-year-old man – both believed to have arrived in Portugal from their native Punjab only a few weeks before – died on Saturday evening in a brutal house fire that exposed the grim reality for so many migrant workers to this country.
Even as locals were rushing to the aid of the Indians and Bangladeshis struggling to escape the smoke and flames engulfing Nº 55 Rua do Terreirinho, media reports were describing the almost surreal conditions in which these people were living.
The T0 where the fire began (a space not usually large enough for more than a couple and a child) was sublet out to around 14 other people.
The ‘system’ for co-habitation involved tenants ‘sleeping in shifts’ on cramped bunk beds.
The teen who died (who has never even been named) and the 50-year-old man (ditto) were taking advantage of their moments on a mattress, and are believed to have died from smoke inhalation.
But the aftermath of this fire is what now is perhaps most important.
Both the Lisbon mayor (who attended the scene) and President Marcelo became involved on the day of the tragedy – very possibly because it must have been clear this situation is a political powder keg. Media reports described the Mouraria district where the fire began as being ‘filled’ with Indians and Bangladeshis living in similarly cramped conditions. Down south in the Algarve there have also been shameful incidents of a gang of youths in Olhão attacking and abusing migrant workers. Thus political leaders sought to ‘come out’ in support of ‘better policies’/ a better approach before being criticised for doing nothing.
But within hours PSD leader Luís Montenegro was basically saying just that.
The government has had its “head in the sand”, he said – instead of ensuring there is a proper system in place to ‘welcome’ foreigners who come to this country to do jobs that so many locals simply do not seem to want.
While Luís Montenegro was stressing how the fire was “a wake-up call to the country and the government”, Marcelo travelled down to the Algarve, to personally apologise to the latest Nepali man to have been dragged physically along an Olhão backstreet pavement, and robbed, as passers-by uploaded the scene to social media (without seemingly intervening on his behalf).
But the damage to Portugal’s reputation as an ‘inclusive country’ could not be so easily finessed away: Timóteo Macedo, president of Portugal’s association for Immigrant Solidarity, told Lusa that all these failings have been ‘hidden in plain sight’ for far too long
“These are situations that were signalled a long time ago, by public opinion, by the media, even by local powers, parish councils, Lisbon city council, but nobody did anything… Only when there is blood do people react. It is regrettable”, he said.
“This situation is lamentable,” he went on, referring specifically to the fire in Mouraria on Saturday evening. “People live in precarious situations. It is impossible for people to have housing to live in dignity” here.
Macedo stressed, like Luís Montenegro, that immigrants living in Portugal are helping the country – contributing in an “extraordinary” way to the sustainability of its social security system.
“The housing issue is left for later: there are no decent public policies to solve these problems,” he said. “It is necessary to take a step back and demand that the government and local authorities actually do something. Stop sleeping. It is enough!
“We need to react; we need to build housing policies that are dignified and human,” he insisted.
It is a matter of human rights: everyone should have access to decent housing.
This is, Macedo added, an “old, very old” demand.
Thus now we will see if anything moves in terms of the immigrants that Timóteo Macedo claims are “scattered throughout the old husk of the city of Lisbon,” as well as in other urban centres, and little towns (like Odemira/ São Teotónio in the Alentejo where slumlike conditions were only highlighted in the context of spiralling Covid infections during the pandemic).
In Macedo’s opinion – and to a large degree the opinion of opposition political parties – this is a ‘citizens’ emergency’ that needs tackling before anyone else dies.
As for the aftermath of the tragic Lisbon fire, authorities now have around 37 immigrants needing shelter.
The building has been deemed uninhabitable until all the necessary repairs have been carried out.
The official cause of the fire is still unclear, although some reports talked about a fire in the kitchen.
The landlady of the T0, who has asked not to be identified, has stressed she had no idea the apartment was being used (and paid for, in a form of subletting) by so many people.
And sadly there has been no information at all about the 14-year-old boy who lost his life. Where are his parents? What was he doing in Portugal, living and dying in such miserable conditions?