In Spain's heart, a slum to shame Europe

The continent's largest shanty town – just a 15-minute drive from the affluent centre of Madrid

Madrid

Canada Real Galiana is a 16km-long, 75m-wide strip of economic and social misery. Believed to be Europe's largest shanty town, it is a mere 15-minute drive from Madrid city centre. "This place reminds me of one of the most run-down slums in Guatemala I used to work in," says Susana Camacho, who works for Fundacion Secretariado Gitano (FSG), a local NGO.

It is in stark contrast to the wealth, elegance and sophistication of nearby Madrid, a city voted among the most liveable in the world. Ms Camacho's van makes its way down the single heavily rutted, mud-splattered track that runs through the Galiana, lurching past lines of flimsy tin or wooden shacks, broken only by the odd few bungalows behind walls so high they could withstand a siege. Aside from perhaps a hundred metres of poorly laid tarmac road – paid for by the residents – it is quickly back to a sea of mud, punctuated only by rubbish, scrawny chickens, wrecked cars and mounds of rubble.

Dubbed the "slum of shame", the 40-year-old settlement, home to 30,000 people, is completely devoid of any public services – no pavements, schools, sewage or drainage systems. Many of its residents are long-standing, legal immigrants from Portugal, Romania, Morocco or South America. "For many, this place is the last resort," confirms Pablo Asua, another FSG worker. "People in the Galiana have fallen through one support network after another. They don't want to know about society any more, and society doesn't want to know about them."

The area is infamous for two things: rubbish – it is right next to the capital's biggest refuse incinerating site – and being Madrid's principal outdoor drugs supermarket. More than 4,000 refuse lorries belch and grind their way across the Galiana every day en route to the incinerators. And social workers estimate 90 per cent of Madrid's illegal drug supply is channelled through here. Actual dealing is overwhelmingly limited to a 1km-long open-air "shooting gallery" within the township. Even on a rain-soaked midweek morning, business looks brisk, with most buyers coming in vehicles. Scruffy-looking men in their twenties or thirties standing around braziers urgently wave down any passing cars. Few addicts actually get out: most can be seen, half-slumped in their seats, through steamed-up windows of the four dozen or so cars lined on either side of the track.

Official indifference to the Galiana is great. Only a single mobile health unit covers the entire township. Local social workers volunteer to help, but often clandestinely in order to avoid their bosses' disapproval.

"We've got six people in our foundation working here. Of 1,800 families, we've reached 80," Ms Camacho adds. "Some of their situations are truly dramatic. I know of families forced to choose between heat and food. They can't afford both."

As if appalling living conditions, zero political interest and having Madrid's largest junkie paradise a stone's throw away from their back doors were not enough to cope with, the Galiana's dwellers now face another challenge: losing their homes altogether.

In March this year, Madrid's regional government announced the Galiana had lost its status as a drovers' trail, with the land now belonging to three different municipalities. A deadline of 2013 has been set to resolve the Galiana's future.

Not surprisingly, its citizens are keen to leave. "We're desperate to get out but there's nowhere to go," says Adelito, an unemployed Portuguese man. He claims he owes €3m in fines to the local authorities for his illegal Galiana shack. But so far, the only "solutions" the Galiana residents have seen are bright yellow diggers from a local company that enter the township with increasing frequency to demolish their shacks, and fines of up to €600,000 apiece for living in illegal dwellings. "The post doesn't reach here," Ms Camacho points out wryly, "but the fines do."

Once their homes are knocked down, there is no resettlement scheme, just a maximum of three nights' lodging in an emergency centre. After that, they are out on the street. As Amnesty International warns, by 2013, it is a fate that could await all 30,000 residents.

For now, should any evicted families return to the township, their first stop is the demolition company's warehouse – the Galiana's equivalent of Poundland, where anything that fell into the skips during the eviction can be bought back by its former owners. Then families invariably either rebuild another shanty – often more precarious and even more of a health risk. Or in some cases, according to Ms Camacho, they just dig out a hole in the rubble of where their first residence stood and make do with that.

"We get no help and then they do this," says Lucilia, a Portuguese woman now facing a €22,000 fine for building a second shack – made almost entirely out of cheap plywood doors – after her first was knocked down. "We didn't have anywhere else to live, so we saw everybody else had built a shack here, even if they were just made out of cardboard, and so did we. Now the authorities say we don't want shacks. That's fine. But they have to provide a solution. All they're doing is throwing us out in the street as if we were stray dogs."

"Strangely enough, it's always the residents with the least money, the foreigners and the Gypsies, who get the eviction orders first. There's definite discrimination," one social worker in the Galiana says. "But what are the people who live there now going to do? Disappear off the face of the earth?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot