Dwelling in Limbo. Temporality in the Governance of Romani Migrants in Spain

  • Ioana VrăbiescuEmail author
Open Access
Part of the IMISCOE Research Series book series (IMIS)


This chapter engages with the current debate on Romani mobility and Spanish state practices of implementing socio-educational programs and camp housing to migrant EU citizens. Taking the Madrid city as a case study, this chapter documents and analyses temporary devices of governance that both limit and force the mobility of Romani families from Romania. Implemented by local authorities through specific policies, temporary devices of governance deliver an enforced pressure on Romani migrants who are seen as prospective “failed” subjects of integration and potential returnees. While deterring migrants from accessing territorial social benefits, local authorities and private companies acting as state proxi assign Romani families a “social contract” that aims for their integration. The authorities not only implement problematic policies, but they interpret and label the mobility of Romani as a characteristic of their “provisional” way of living and dwelling. Following Cabot (2012) and Ringel (2016) on the temporality of governance and scholarship on the anthropology of time (Munn 1992; Fabian 2014), I aim to show two entangled processes in local governance: the subject formation of Romani migrants as an ethnicized mobile minority, and the long-term adverse results of project-based, profit-oriented social work. Romani migrants have become the target of a new type of social engineering by bringing into question the establishment of citizenship: agreeing to the social contract not only presumes that Romani migrants are not members of the same community, but also suggests that their lives have a different temporality.

This chapter engages with the current debate on Romani mobility and Spanish state practices of implementing socio-educational programs and camp housing to migrant EU citizens. Taking the Madrid city as a case study, this chapter documents and analyses temporary devices of governance that both limit and force the mobility of Romani families from Romania. Implemented by local authorities through specific policies, temporary devices of governance deliver an enforced pressure on Romani migrants who are seen as prospective “failed” subjects of integration and potential returnees. While deterring migrants from accessing territorial social benefits, local authorities and private companies acting as state proxi assign Romani families a “social contract” that aims for their integration. The authorities not only implement problematic policies, but they interpret and label the mobility of Romani as a characteristic of their “provisional” way of living and dwelling. Following Cabot (2012) and Ringel (2016) on the temporality of governance and scholarship on the anthropology of time (Munn 1992; Fabian 2014), I aim to show two entangled processes in local governance: the subject formation of Romani migrants as an ethnicized mobile minority, and the long-term adverse results of project-based, profit-oriented social work. Romani migrants have become the target of a new type of social engineering by bringing into question the establishment of citizenship: agreeing to the social contract not only presumes that Romani migrants are not members of the same community, but also suggests that their lives have a different temporality.

7.1 Introduction

Authors who have problematized time and temporality have pointed to the contradiction between empirical research and the way the representation of time develops and informs our knowledge (Fabian 2014; Hodges 2008). This results in a broad conceptualization and categorization of time and temporality in social science (Munn 1992; Bastian 2014) that reflects and (re)produces state-pivoted categories through specific “temporal narratives, projections and expectations” (Ringel 2016). Scholars have explained how multiple organizations of time in different cultures shape temporalities and make them functional (Verdery 1996). Others have zoomed in on the concept of temporality, explaining how “temporal variations not only exist between different groups, but that multiple temporal models coexist within societies, varying between individuals and across contexts and the life-course” (Griffiths 2014). Temporality is embedded in laws, regulations and politics, and reflects the ethics and mechanisms structuring society (Cabot 2012; Grabham 2016).

Focusing on colonial entanglement between time and temporality, some scholars have shown how standard time has created temporal paradigms that are culturally specific. They argue for a discrepancy between Western time – a structural-temporality reflected through punctuality and technology – and a slower, looser temporality expressing an “underlying opposition between culture, religion, spirituality on the one hand and technology, materiality and instrumental rationality on the other” (Barak 2013: 3). Several scholars have signalled that temporality is missing in the study of mobility and migration (Cwerner 2001; Griffiths et al. 2013; Griffiths 2014). However, the significance of temporality in the context of migration has been problematized in migrants’ experience of “waiting,” being in “limbo” or having life put “on hold” during bureaucratic processes of admission, recognition of status or integration (Mountz et al. 2002; Robertson and Runganaikaloo 2014; Boccagni 2017).

In this direction, the present chapter tackles temporality as essential to understanding the entanglement of migration, social inclusion policies and bureaucratic exclusion practices for Romani migrants. Temporality plays an important role, both in imagining and representing the mobility of Romani migrants (Trumpener 1992), as well as in portraying them as a target of social inclusion initiatives. I bring to the fore the vicious construction of temporality in relation to social inclusion initiatives addressed at marginalized Romanian Romani migrants living in Spain. Disjunctive temporalities embedded in social inclusion programs are based on state categorizations of dwelling facilities and a normative understanding of the life course (Elder et al. 2003), which together create an administrative and existential limbo for Romani migrants. To build my argument, I analyse institutional guidance and constraints as well as the ways in which social workers make sense of their contribution while taking decisions and implementing policies in El Gallinero shantytown and the related temporary camps program.1 Between 2014 and 2016, I conducted non-continuous fieldwork in the Madrid region, covering the shantytowns of El Gallinero, Cañada Real Galiana and Delicias. I had extensive talks with civil servants working in the municipality of Madrid and in the Madrid Autonomous Region, as well as social workers employed by religious and secular for- and non-profit organizations. Our meetings left ample room for the interviewees to present their own vision about their work and the programs they were participating in. As we will see, their views and interpretations not only seem to justify their interventions under the guise of professionalism, but also appear to legitimate and reinforce the ethics of the institutions or organizations they work for.

Exposing the position and reasoning of civil servants and social workers while interacting with Romanian Romani migrants, I highlight the discrepancies associated with the use of temporality in their daily work and implementation strategies. One the one hand, social workers perpetuate a problematic vision of migrants’ temporality, and on the other hand, they impose an unquestioned temporality through embedding it in social programs. The state works with a definition of temporality in managing migration that, by categorizing people as highly mobile or being in continuous movement, determines short-term planning and policy intervention. The prospect of social integration – measurable over a 1-year timeline – suspends the (a)temporality of citizenship, one that is given by the social contract.

Allegedly, social programs in the Madrid region aim for the integration of marginalized and poor Romani migrants, addressing their basic needs underpinned in research reports, policy documents and local funding initiatives (Piemontese and Beluschi Fabeni 2013). However, these programs are shaped by the ways in which the state and non-state agents in charge of their implementation understand temporality. These programs disclose public administration practices of sorting out housing projects for Romani migrants, while exhibiting a colonial understanding of migrants’ temporality as being ingrained in their life course and territorial mobility. While several state policies addressing issues involving work, family life, housing or health reveal degrees of mismatch between the state’s categories and the migrants’ capabilities, I will focus on the temporality of “life course” and “housing,” both of which reveal to a great extent the complexity of the unbalanced power relation. With the term “life course” I refer to phases of the lives of migrants, such as childhood, teenagehood or adulthood; these phases are familiar to the social workers insofar as they correspond to state-designated categorizations. The cultural temporality of the “Other” and the description of Roma as “different” inform the decisions of street-level bureaucrats who have the discretionary power to define categories and to include or exclude individuals.

The structure of this chapter reflects the chronological and conceptual stages that characterize the civil servants’ assessments of the informal dwellings inhabited by Roma migrants. At first, street-level bureaucrats struggle to understand the mobility of Romani and to determine the identity of the dwellings’ inhabitants: who are these people, why did they come, where do they come from, and why did they choose this particular city. Secondly, they design and implement social inclusion programs characterized by temporal and budgetary limits, institutional tasks and measurements. As a result, many actors operating in shantytowns develop competitive or overlapping projects based on different philosophies of social integration and in response to different funding entities. For example, while the school bus service supports children’s school attendance, other programs develop children’s alternative skills (Real Madrid football club program for youth); while mothers are encouraged to learn the language and follow sanitary classes, no childcare support is offered that would allow them the time to follow such pursuits; some programs allow migrants access to provisions after measuring their commitments and accomplishments, while others offer basic provisions without imposing any tasks or background checks.

Deconstructing the institutional and organizational logic in which the practices of civil servants and social workers are embedded, I will point to the temporal aspect of mobility that justifies and rationalizes state interventions. My argument takes into account two different representations and understandings of temporality in qualifying mobility and migration: first, civil servants’ interpretations of the place inhabited by Romani migrants (informal dwelling) and of their life course shapes the “temporality of migrants” (Courgeau 2014); second, this temporality justifies state intervention in the form of child protection and programs for family integration. Notably, state bureaucrats associate the precarious dwelling of Romani migrants with an unwillingness to “settle down” and a preference for living temporarily in one place—another metaphor for nomadism. At the same time, temporal and budgetary limitations often get ignored in the assessment of the success or failure of project-based social intervention. The design of social programs entails a rhythm and temporality that corresponds to the ethics and politics accepted by mainstream society and supported by state policies. These two dimensions of interpreting temporality have been defined as bio-temporality and structural-temporality. The former encompasses the life course and time lived at a human scale in a temporality coordinated by life events, biological limits and a subjective approach (Amir 2007), whereas the latter has been defined as the objective state categorization and standard of time, often imposed in a colonial manner (Barak 2013). I will use structural-temporality to refer to the form embraced by state agents when assessing the integration process, in opposition to the lived temporality of migrants. In migration management, the problematic categorization of one’s life course is conceived and assessed by state agents according to a normative timeline determined by the state (Grabham 2016). This chapter questions how migration management works in the Madrid region as a result of a specific conception of temporality embedded in policies and programs for Romani migrants, and of social workers’ understanding of migrants’ temporality. In doing so, I aim to analyse how Romani migrants are marginalized through the realization of “objective” and colonial (structural) temporality embedded in social inclusion programs.

In the first two sections, I will investigate the construction of Romani migrants as an ethnicized mobile minority through the temporality of inhabited space and that of the life course. The state’s working category for the Roma becomes mobility, and associating them with this cultural attribute – i.e., nomadism – determines a particular understanding of temporality with respect to how they live their lives. Labelling Roma as “highly mobile” problematizes their temporality against that of mainstream society. Two aspects resulting from this state categorization will be discussed further: ethnicized life course and temporal location. My study underpins the observation of Bowker and Star (2000) that through “filiation” Romani migrants become subject to a state category, “ethnic mobile group,” and immediately thereafter to a set of bureaucratic practices. In the third section, I will describe temporary devices of governance that incorporate a certain understanding of temporality embedded in laws and policies. Translated into inclusion programs for Romani migrant families, projects are limited in time and budget and often result in predictable failures with respect to their target group (Vrăbiescu and Kalir 2017). These projects encourage a definition of temporality that is presented as uncontested and deceivingly normative. In the last section, I will analyse the “in-camp” housing project for Romani migrants conditioned by the signature of a formal contract for inclusion, which is called “social contract.” The 1-year timeline of this program determines and prolongs the limbo in which Romani migrants are forced to live. Based on the temporality embedded in the program, I will explain the ways in which this social contract acts first to de-humanize Romani migrants – excluding them from the (a)temporality of citizenship – and second creates their practical exclusion on the basis of family migration. This approach to social inclusion leads not only to harsh marginalization, but to a form of citizenship dispossession.

7.2 The Temporality of the Inhabited Space

Circular and return migration are essential tenants of the EU’s mobility framework, entrenched in the right to the freedom of movement. In spite of such a right, member states employ strategies directed at containing the mobility of Romani migrants. On the one hand, the intra-European mobility of Romani people has been proven to have consequences for national and international politics (Sigona and Vermeersch 2012; Yildiz and De Genova 2017), as well as for the social life of Roma and non-Roma communities in both countries of origin and of destination (Vullnetari 2012; Maestri 2017). On the other hand, throughout European cities Romani ethnics have been subjected to different forms of forced (im)mobility, both at local and international levels (Piemontese 2015; van Baar 2015; Sardelić 2017).

In order to justify the failure of programs and actions developed by the state and private initiatives for Romani migrants’ integration, civil servants and private social workers create their own interpretations that tend to absolve the state of any blame where intervention is concerned. The failure of integration projects tends to be attributed to the “problematic and precarious” temporality of Romani migrants’ settlements and migrants’ allegedly short life course phases. There are two types of discourses used by civil servants to justify their interventions. First, the “temporality” found in shantytowns, especially the high mobility and precarious shacks, demonstrate the failure of social housing policies and Romani migrants’ integration. Second, the same “temporality” is interpreted as being the result of deviant social behavior by Romani migrants, which demands special intervention by the state. In addition to offering basic social provisions (health courses for women and lessons in childcare), the state takes a punishing approach towards the shantytown population (police raids, dismantling of shacks, or offering support for so-called voluntary return).

Romani migrants from Eastern Europe are represented in the Spanish institutional imaginary as Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, being identified mostly by their precarious housing or “their way of living” and subjected to several policies and programs for social integration2 (Magazzini and Piemontese 2016). This institutional imaginary is very often perpetuated by mass media, which reproduces an image of destitute and criminal Romani migrants (López Catalán and Aharchi 2012; Piemontese et al. 2014), reinforcing a political need for scapegoating (Beluschi Fabeni et al. 2014). The social actors operating in the Madrid region refer to Romani migrants living in shantytowns as their biggest problem to be solved. During my interview with the freshly appointed clerk in charge of designing and implementing politics for Cañada Real Galiana, he explained that his priority is to eradicate the shantytown and to resolve the poor housing situation of people living in El Gallinero because they represent 90% of Romanian Roma migrants living in Madrid. This attitude is echoed at the social and institutional level where projects and policies for social inclusion flourish to the extent that they overlap and compete with one another. At the same time, civil servants who have already been working for some years in several projects unreservedly show their dissatisfaction with Romani migrants and their social and material situation, expressing bewilderment that after so much social intervention, still nothing has changed in their living conditions. The interpretation of this failure has neither been questioned nor problematized by social workers; nor has it been criticized politically or institutionally, but rather accommodated and redirected to blame the same subjects of integration policies.

Explaining the poor housing and material conditions that Romani migrants have been dealing with for a long time in the shantytown, one of the social workers abruptly said, “They don’t do anything to improve their situation despite living here for more than ten years!” (interview with Marcus, Madrid, November 2015).3 It is not surprising to see the correlation between civil servants’ opinions and official reports, even if some of these documents have been delivered by private researchers or NGO-sponsored initiatives. The rhetoric in at least one of the NGO reports sounds very similar: “We asked ourselves why these families keep travelling from so far away looking for a better future, if once they arrive here they do not live in better conditions than in their country of origin” (Gutierrez Sanchez 2015: 31). Beyond manipulating a stereotyped explanation and blaming the victim, social workers justify the existence, “integration” and “failure” of Romani migrants, and simultaneously justify their own social work. Civil servants and private social workers’ contribution to the (non-)integration of Romani migrants reflects their opinions of migration, the meaning they give to their work and the applied ethics of the institutions they represent.

Ignacio, the manager of public housing services in the Madrid region, spent most of his professional life relocating precarious and vulnerable people to social houses. He explained the existence of El Gallinero in a public talk he gave in Barcelona, introducing “temporality” as the lens through which the very presence of shantytown could be justified. According to him, the temporal dimension is reflected in the way of living and provisional dwellings Romani migrants seem to prefer. Bringing up the shantytown’s spatial proximity to Madrid, he pointed to two photos of a very simple shack built with “the trashiest materials one can find” and another “improved” version of a shack, looking more like a poor house. The first shack allegedly belonged to Romani migrants from El Gallinero, whereas the other one belonged to autochthonous Spanish Gitanos from Cañada Real Galiana, the neighbourhood nearby what is traditionally known as the cattle glen, which remains the poorest part of the Madrid region (Monografia Comunitaria 2016). Both examples of shacks are located equally close to the metropolitan area and thus there is no apparent reason why they are constructed so differently. Why would the Romani migrants not want to improve their dwellings? The manager continued to spell out his theory about the difference being so remarkable, advancing the idea of “provisional living” as the background reality of the migrants who do not want to settle and do not want to build better houses for themselves.

The hypothesis that I am referring to is the provisional status of these families who live in this shantytown. […] I think that because these people [Romani migrants] live in a situation of continuous passing through, they do not build, let’s say, slightly more comfortable shacks [like those of the Spanish Gitanos] (Ignacio, Barcelona, 2016)

Mobility is thus explained not only in terms of travelled space, but also in terms of temporal horizon (Griffiths et al. 2013). These two components of mobility contribute to civil servants’ need for making sense of the difficult life conditions of Romani migrants. The countless projects carried out in El Gallinero, through which millions have been invested and wasted, could not change their living conditions. Civil servants’ own work over the years failed because it tried to force the impossible integration of migrants characterized by high mobility, viewed as an irregular and unreasonable spatial movement or an unhealthy, unsafe, and short phase of the life course. The failure of social programs for Romani migrants’ inclusion ultimately became self-explanatory for social workers: Romani migrants themselves, who “live in a situation of continuous passing through,” make it impossible for social workers to help them improve their living situation. As part of the habit of blaming the Romani migrants, social workers also claim difficulties and even the impossibility of communicating with their target group. Nevertheless, social workers often overlook state abuse and somehow seem not to consider the recurrent vicious acts of dismantling Roma dwellings. Public authorities, be it either the local or the regional authority, act upon court orders and command the police to demolish “some” shacks (see García Santacruz 2017; Vrăbiescu 2018). Such an act of discretionary and hazardous home destruction is paradoxically met with the triumphant conclusion of street-level bureaucrats: Romani migrants do not improve their dwelling places because they only want to stay temporarily in the host country.

The notion that Romani migrants live in a precarious and uncertain temporality can also be used as a justification for why the number of inhabitants is unknown, or touted as the real reason why Romani migrants are present in Madrid. This metaphor of instability and unsettledness illuminates and exempts the malpractice of social workers. The shantytown, the place where Romani migrants live, is perceived by social workers to be nothing but a halt – a momentary stop in the migrants’ continuous movement. This perception of a fluid place prevents the shantytown from remaining a part of an administrative territory. The place itself becomes subject to another type of bureaucratic and state management. Once public administration is no longer directly responsible for the coordination of the shantytown’s territory, social services act according to a different logic. Social services do not consider housing provision to be a viable option for a population that has been considered mobile, and they may offer (only) support to an ethnicized minority, such as the state category of Gitanos. This relegation of responsibility to social services, very often done without sufficient funding, results in a challenging organization of social work on the ground and an even more twisted sense-making of such interventions by the social workers themselves.

7.2.1 The Perceived Temporality of Migrants’ Life Course

Even when research reports and decades of social interventions by state authorities and NGOs point to the lack of housing for Romani migrants, the projects for social integration sanctioned by the state omit precisely this dimension. Instead, a plethora of social workers, both commissioned by the state and working in local and regional state structures, have implemented programs in El Gallinero that mostly aim at child protection. In the analysis of some of these difficulties and contradictions, two particular prejudices seem to be commonly used as justification for the alleged high-mobility and specific temporality of Romani migrants: (1) gendered abnormal social behaviour that determines temporary settlements; (2) negative evaluation of childcare and too-short life course phases.

The bare existence of El Gallinero, a poor and precarious place allegedly because it is inhabited only temporarily, influences Spanish institutions’ management of Romani migrants’ mobility. The perceived temporality of migrants, of their life in the shantytown, marks the cause and effect of Romani social behaviour, which is categorized as deviant. Social workers explain this deviant social behaviour by condemning the Romani resilient patriarchal structure as well as the widespread precariousness of childhood. Social workers defend their difficulty in categorizing, organizing and developing projects in the shantytown due to migrants’ “wrong lifestyle” and deeply unequal gender relations:

El Gallinero is the place where an indefinite number of people live. [Indefinite] because they are mobile. This mobility is given by different factors that are not always controlled by the most vulnerable persons belonging to this community: the boys and girls, and the women. The factors [determining mobility] are men: it is the men that either give reasons for leaving and looking for a better life somewhere else, or force [family members] to stay and live in the shantytown. This mobility is determined by men. (Ignacio, Madrid, 2016)

Civil servants link the concept of mobility to the patriarchal structure of traditional Romani society and to the delinquent behaviour and practices perpetuated by Romani migrant men. However, pointing out the vulnerability of women and children from a marginalized community rather than explaining the structural and intersectional discrimination that occurs ends up harming that community rather than helping it (Vrăbiescu and Kalir 2017). Civil servants are aware of how difficult it must be for those left behind to make ends meet after a police arrest, for example. These mostly single-parent families struggle to obtain state subsidies, since not receiving them—which is the case more often than not—pushes women to go and beg on the streets. In conclusion, Ignacio summarizes: “with men... it is impossible to work.” These gender-biased interpretations are being used here to explain the negative effects that Romani migrant men, who are perceived as patriarchal, traditional, violent and backward, have on their community, families and their children (see also Griffiths 2015).

In the same vein, another social worker told me how men are difficult to work with and that a successful social intervention is basically impossible when men are within the family. Describing what happened in a family before and after the arrest of the father, she reveals her understanding of gender roles within the Romani migrant family and the institutional approaches that follow:

Now that the men are not there, we try to intervene more with women. We realized that when the husband is not at home, the dynamic within the family changes a lot—in that the women make decisions, and they do make decisions that their children will benefit from. For example, we worked with a family with three children, out of which two had been expelled from school for being absent too much, and because they were older than 16 years old. The third one was smaller but had already quit school three years prior. We worked with this family using every method that you can imagine: awards, punishment, guidance. We worked with the school, and the tutors came to talk to the family to convince the parents that… but the child did not want to go. The father was not very supportive. The mother she wanted the kid out but she did not hold this capacity to… well. The father went to prison… at the end of last summer. So, in September we returned to work with the family, with the mother, [regarding] the importance to have the child registered in the school and indeed, the children got registered. Because the father was not there… You know, because she wanted him to [attend school], but the father did not want to force the boy. So, now, since the father was not there, the mother had to take these decisions. She does not have to share them with her husband, nor does she have to accept whatever the husband says, so... it was ‘easier’ to register the child. However, it was still complicated to register a child of ten in the school, but we could see that the mother had good intentions. And the mother was strong and stood her ground, that the child will go to school. This would not have been possible with the father present. So, you can note when men are not there (Estela, Madrid, 2015)

Civil servants and social workers are quick to talk about the mobility of Roma in a racist and sexist way, based on a spatial interpretation of migration that they see as the cause of the precarious dwellings (Picker et al. 2015). In addition, migration management evaluates the temporal dimension of mobility, concluding that (high) mobility determines shorter phases of their life course, which is unhealthy and dangerous. In explaining the problematic aspect of domestic violence and normalized violence against community members in El Gallinero, a social worker explained what was in her opinion a decisive factor restraining Romani migrants’ inclusion: the very short childhood:

[…] the children from [El] Gallinero have a very very very short childhood. They stop being children very fast. This [the violence among their parents] is something a small child of three, four, five years old will talk about [if asked]. After that [age], they already know what they should not tell. Because at twelve, thirteen years old they are already adults. At 14 years old they already have their own child. The childhood is very very very short. They stop being babies very soon, they stop being children very fast. (Estela, Madrid, 2015)

Once the topic shifts from economic needs to child protection, the entire explanation of social intervention can often gain another level of depth: the focus on children’s safety changes the responsibility of the state towards migrants. The fortified child protection system in Spain often affects migrant children disproportionately, and in a perverse way also the safety of Romani migrant families (Humphris 2017; Vrăbiescu 2017). Following the design of social projects that focus on children, funding is channelled in the same direction, attracting experts, social workers, NGO and private initiatives to compete in offering services. One of the NGO workers clarified to me how they choose the focus of their projects, and how the NGO took the initiative to work with Romani migrants in El Gallinero:

[T]he important thing was to work with children, with teens. Because the summer holidays were designed for children and there were a lot of activities [to offer] for children. (…) We started with a photo exhibit that [Romani children] created themselves and this had a great result and a media impact. The press was talking about us. El Gallinero is a very mediated place! And then we received funding for two years from the Ministry of Social Affairs. (Amalia, Madrid, 2015)

Instead of acknowledging structural social exclusion, social workers prefer to look for cultural discrepancies in raising children, such as deviant behaviour and lack of knowledge in childcare. Seemingly disregarding the widespread illiteracy among Romani, they promote classes where young mothers are taught to record all the details about the evolution of their baby in the first year of life. Social workers develop and implement programs according to the normative state plan for child wellbeing as a way to try to educate Romani parents. From their point of view, and against the norm for child protection, the responsibility to go to school ends up being better held by the children themselves:

Initially, the parents [were responsible], but now it is the child’s responsibility if s/he wants to go to school or not. If s/he does not want to go, nothing happens, if s/he wants to go, then s/he will go. Of course, all this is complicated. We make sure that the parent does not oppose. (Estela, Madrid, 2015)

This remark was made while explaining the program that integrated children into the schooling system. Romani migrants match a target group to a social inclusion project based on social workers’ understanding of migrants’ temporality and their prevalent misunderstanding of how mobility plays out in the life course generally, and in childhood and family life in particular. By contrast, the temporality embedded in national, regional and local laws and regulations has a direct effect on integration programs’ frameworks. Yet this passes unnoticed, since it is widely ignored by those who work on the ground with Romani migrants.

7.3 Temporary Devices of Governance

Emily Grabham (2016) describes temporalities as being created through relationships between humans, things and matter, while she emphasizes “the strange qualities of legal time [to] produce specific effects” (2016: 47). Following her insight into the role of law in organizing social time and how “legal temporalities produce as well as govern,” I will argue here that the social programs implemented in El Gallinero have designed and determined the life of Romani migrants. Time is shaped for Romani migrants through social programs that bring “law” into their lives. The legal and political temporality shaped by the social integration programs hold in place a particular understanding of Romani mobility and spatial unsettledness. The form of the law itself, the administrative regulations and political practices, materializes time “alongside and in relationship with human legal subjects” (Grabham 2014). The law and its implementation programs restructure the social life of Romani migrants, by explaining how their mobility is a negative factor for inclusion.

The formation of Romani migrants as ethnicised mobile subjects determines not only the ways in which they are perceived by authorities, but also allows public servants to create, approve and implement projects that do not respond to the actual needs of migrants. Social projects are conceived in a standard timeframe and Romani migrants are required to fit into the “normalized” temporality of the integration process. The “deviant” temporality of mobility perceived and registered by social workers has contributed to shaping these projects for social inclusion. For example, instead of addressing the issue of precarious housing, namely offering social housing for homeless people from families that live in the shantytown, social projects end up excluding the target population from state provision and protection. Implicitly and explicitly this problematic implementation of social projects steered state authorities to withdraw existing social provisions and in return to encourage voluntary return programs. Romani migrants from Romania are driven into an administrative limbo that has very direct material consequences for their lives, repeatedly throwing them to the margins of society with little chance to live anywhere else but in the shantytown. Not acknowledging the impossibility of accessing basic needs is one strategy deployed by social workers to claim that the system of integration is faultless. This permits them to easily blame Romani migrants for their own destitution, both in terms of housing or access to social services:

The thing is that in Madrid anyone can register (empadronar) on a bench, at a tree. This is legal. It can be done. They [people that do not have local registration] go to a registration office and ask to register their shack. They go to the local administration (junta municipal) and say that they want to register. In order to do that, local police go to the shack and verify that the person lives there. (…) Then the police sees the family living in that house and then they can register. In the local administration of Villa de Vallecas. After that, once the members of the family are registered, they can ask for social benefits. (Estela, Madrid, 2015)

By contrast, another social worker who works in a different and complementary social project explained to me that people who only have an ID (or passport) from their country of origin and the residential permit (empadronamiento) cannot, in fact, ask for social protection. She confirmed that Romani migrants cannot obtain any social benefits if they do not have a valid residency permit (NIE/tarjeta residente), which is conditioned by a work contract and, in case of unemployment, proof of actively looking for work (demanda de empleo). These work conditions are, however, hardly likely to be fulfilled by Romani migrants.
In Spain, the formal procedure requires people living in an informal dwelling (chabolas) to be considered “at risk” and consequently to be attended by the municipal social services. The social workers have the task to evaluate the family’s socio-economic situation and to initiate a “mediation process” with the broader aim of ensuring their access to family social inclusion programs. When certain conditions—such as residence permit, health insurance, personal documentation or school registration—are missing, then they are supposed to “find a solution” for Romani migrants. In practice, social workers offer support for these situations, altering social policies by implementing an emergency approach. The state creates social programs, interprets laws and implements policies that work with a different temporality than the perceived “temporality of migrants.” State intervention is often based on social workers’ suspicion regarding the migration plans of the Roma and their “real” reason for living in the shantytown. Rhetorical questions and supposedly flawless explanations in fact reveal a circular logic that endorses doubt about Romani migrants’ provenience or purpose of migration. Eliza, one of the social workers who worked in El Gallinero for 4 years, expressed her disbelief in this paradoxical way:

Why do they come? We have already been working with them for eight years and still we do not know why they come, why they go. If you talk to them you do not understand. We do not know for sure. There are economic reasons, that’s clear, for which they come. But why do they decide to come to Madrid? Why do they not want to escape from where they are living? We know by now a lot of things about them. I think it is important to know where they come from. We know that they come from the same town. They are all from Țăndărei. The majority. So, what is it like there that makes them come here? The majority maintain their house there, and also send money from RMI4 to maintain the house. So?!... I am not saying that they had good conditions [in Romania] but they are not like here. Because here there are no houses with running water [and] all of them are built from wood and plastic. They are not like other informal places, because they [Romani migrants] do nothing to improve [their shacks]. (Eliza, Madrid, 2015)

Social workers’ mistrust of the Roma living in El Gallinero regarding the real purpose of their migration is clear. In their understanding of mobility there are proofs to distinguish a real migrant, one who invests in the arrival destination, from a counterfeit migrant, one who sends money “back home.” In their view, Romani are not honest migrants who wish to integrate, but instead use their poverty to claim social benefits. Due to their dishonesty, Romani migrants will use this money to build houses in their country of origin and do nothing to improve their housing situation in the country of migration. Subsequently, making sense of Romani mobility in such a way, social workers normalize evictions and start to recommend voluntary returns (Vrăbiescu 2016).

Even when poverty is a reality for people living in the shantytown, social workers need a deeper explanation to ultimately make sense of their work. When state and private actors have exhausted all options for the integration process, the failure of Romani migrants seems self-explanatory. Civil servants and social workers believe they did their best and “they tried everything,” therefore expulsion instead of desertion is seen as a redemptive solution. This logic reveals the intricacies of the development-security nexus, showing how the state shifts policies within the same logic: shrinking welfare nurtures the security apparatus (van Baar 2017). Temporality—the way it is understood and managed by civil servants—plays a significant role in explaining and reinforcing the development-security nexus. Instead of offering provisions, the state enacts a type of punishing mechanism against Romani migrants by implementing short-term programs for child protection, developing temporary camps and enforcing evictions.

Different temporalities detectable in one place, El Gallinero, are shaped by competing and overlapping state projects resulting from precarious urbanity, administrative chaos, political exclusion and the materiality of dwelling places. First, precarious urbanity translates into geographic isolation and a lack of public investment in infrastructure. The shantytown is divided into three areas: (1) El Gallinero5 – the upper part built in 2007–2008 has a lot of empty shacks and social workers seemingly do not know why they remain uninhabited; (2) Ensanche6 – the poorest part is also the oldest dwelling area, built in 2002; (3) El Alto7 – the newest part, built in 2010; there is no sewage, electricity or water system in the shantytown, except for one source of water and one garbage container installed recently. The bus station is a 10-min walk but a ride to Madrid costs six euros. Second, administrative disarray results from the legal status of the terrain where the shantytown is erected, belonging in part to the regional authority8 and in part to a private industrial terrain. Thus, the local administration cannot implement law-abiding programs of urban development, but it does go ahead and demolish “some” shacks several times a year, spurred by a judge’s order and a landlord’s complaint. The number of inhabitants is claimed not to be known, although all shacks have a number and people are registered after the census done by the Red Cross and the specialized agency of the Autonomous Region of Madrid.9 Third, political exclusion is visible in two ways: (1) by separating El Gallinero from the regional urban development project10 and rehabilitation of Cañada Real Galiana, regardless of their geographical proximity, and (2) by offering integration and expulsion at the same time. Keeping the headlines, El Gallinero triggers contradictory political statements and programs for integration. On the one hand, the Mayor of Madrid invested in street repair in the shantytown (Bécares 2017). On the other hand, the head of Equality, Social Rights and Labour organization, who committed herself to a new program in collaboration with the Romanian authorities, explained that she wants “to integrate these people. To those that a house can be given, because they meet the conditions, it will be given, and to those who want to return to Romania, to facilitate [the return]” (Bécares 2016). Fourth, materiality of temporality is grounded in the definition of informal dwelling places that have “the vocation of temporality” (Pitillas Salvá et al. 2014: 14). In a technical description of the shacks, their non-conforming construction inferred that the houses are of a temporary character (Ávila 2014). These strange temporalities depicted within the official documents and political decisions have material effects on the lives of Romani migrants. Social intervention is determined not only by documents and research done on the population living in El Gallinero, but also by the social programs considered the only solution for the migrants.

7.4 Citizenship Timeline

One of the examples I want to evoke is the way in which local authorities dismiss the Romani migrant housing problem by pointing to an existent project of living “in-camp” for a period of 1 year, a project developed initially by the Red Cross and ACCEM organization.11 This project addressing the Romani migrant housing issue started at the end of 1990s, and contrary to its aim, it led to the creation of El Gallinero shantytown. According to civil servants, the people who joined this project (and their relatives) or who wanted to join the project but did not qualify started to live in the proximity of the camp (Vrăbiescu 2018). This relocation project lead to the (re)negotiation of their “social contract” and reveals the understanding of migration as temporally unconstrained mobility. On the one hand, a social contract reveals a temporality of citizenship that enables the state to act administratively, pressuring people targeted for integration. The public authorities of Madrid, in this case, have the leverage to postpone any welfare action until the time limit of 1 year is lifted at the end of project, at which time the state resumes its responsibility for the given population. On the other hand, the targeted population is characterized as highly mobile, thus unable to fit in the designed social integration programs. Romani migrants facing this paradox should commit to the 1–year-long temporary “social contract,” otherwise they end up being categorized as highly mobile, beyond the state’s consideration for integration. This kind of “trial” integration contains another paradox: the individual-based social contract versus the family type of Romani migration.

In one of my encounters with the project manager, a young Romanian lady with a legal background, she said she feels accomplished being a mediator for the families, having to explain the process and help with their integration. During our talk, “family” stood out as the key category for the “in-camp” project for social inclusion. The project functions for families, meaning it includes normative families, single-parent families and families without children. The concept of “family” has been revealed as being central to my interviews as well as in all the activities, methods used for evaluation and the project’s design and facilities. Contrary to academics and policy-makers who often labelled the migration of Romani as family or extended family migration (Matras 2000; Fleck and Rughiniș 2008), an emphasis on the family in managing Roma migration can dramatically affect the family structure and adversely legitimize and reinforce a particular type of violence. In fact, Romani migrants accepted to the “in-camp” housing program are supposed to sign the “social contract,” this time designating a civil contract between the NGO and the migrant family, which compels them to find work on the job market and rent a place on their own. While a social contract, in contractarist terms, refers to an “individual” and their potential integration under a new agreement with the state, the inclusion policy of “social contract” is an agreement with an entire family, where “family” is defined as undesirable and even a liability for Romani migrants.

The contractarist theories start by defining a social contract as the relation established between the state and its citizens (see Rawls and Hobbes) and argues that people willingly give up control over their lives – or certain freedom/rights – to the state in order to obtain rights in the form of protection/security and/or welfare (see Rousseau and Hume). First, social contract theory explains the formation of citizenship by forfeiting certain rights given up by the individual to the sovereign state. Second, by “signing” the social contract, the individual aims to attain civilization, receive security and be protected by the violence possibly induced by other citizens. Roma migrants who enter the “in-camp” project reflect this type of mechanism: the “social contract” aims at their rehabilitation and integration into society, while the temporary nature of a “trial” inclusion actually pushes them out of society and attests that they do not belong to the same community.

In analysing the ethical and political exclusion of Romani migrants, a contractarist approach might be better explained and complemented by membership theory. While contactarist theory postulates an individual-based social contract, membership theory has the potential to include or to exclude individuals in social contracts. The power to punish and the power to edict moral condemnation is the manifestation of the sovereign state, and it “marks out the boundaries of who is an accepted member of society” (Stumpf 2006: 378). Looking at community ties and mutual obligations, which are the basic concepts of membership theory, the case of Romani migrants living in shantytowns remains ambiguous. Responding to a standardized time, the temporality of the “social contract” establishes a T0 when the social contract begins, and a T1 when the contract expires. This state-pivoted temporality represents a time-lapse outside of a-temporal citizenship, which is the epitome of recognition and belonging to society. The “social contract” thus excludes Romani and denies them the right to citizenship. However, even when successful, Romani migrants cannot hope for the restoration of their social contract, namely, full acceptance as members of the community. Most likely, after the real-time measurable period of 1 year, Romani migrants are considered as having no ties to society.

On the one hand, the period of 1 year is known to be inadequate for any real social integration, since participants are expected to find work and rent a house. The economic context of the real estate market in Spain and its consequences for poor working-class Spanish-born people or migrants (Beremenyi and Carrasco 2015, 2018) severely diminishes Romani migrants’ possibilities to respond to the project’s demands. On the other hand, the materiality of the “social contract” condemns Romani migrants to not only fail the project, but also excludes them from the (national) community. Participants could not ask to prolong their stay, nor could they claim any other type of state provision. The process of failed integration thus leads to even harsher exclusion of Romani migrants. Unlike in contractarist theory, the materiality of the social contract offered in Madrid is measurable in real time and achievements. At the end of the program, there are no more obligations to support Romani migrants and thus no provision or protection is guaranteed by the state.

7.5 Conclusion

Temporality is embedded in laws and state devices of governance used in Spain to manage migration. In this chapter I demonstrated that life course normativity and housing standardization in social services practice incorporate different definitions of temporality. The subtle ways in which temporality is manipulated within the laws and social inclusion programs puts the blame for failure on marginalized people. This structural-temporality informs the ethics of social workers that are manifested in the implementation of inclusion programs. By letting the structural-temporality penetrate social inclusion programs, the state substantiates the means for excluding undesirable migrants.

In this chapter I have exposed civil servants’ and social workers’ visions of migration, precarious dwellings, and what they consider to be the “right” life course. Tackling the case study of Romani migrants living in El Gallinero shantytown, I have explored temporality associated with the inhabited space (first section) and the life course of Romani migrants (second section) as perceived by civil servants, and have contrasted these understandings with the temporality embedded in laws and social programs (third section), thus problematizing the temporality of citizenship (fourth section).

Romani migrants are just one example of how social workers’ set of ethics is enacted during the implementation of inclusion programs for marginalized people. This process remains invisible to the street-level bureaucrats, institutions and organizations that set up tasks and measurements for Romani migrants’ integration, which are ultimately impossible to meet. These unreachable goals indirectly convert social projects into exclusionary practices. If mobility is the consequence of the precarious lives of Romani in their country of origin, where push factors transform them into emigrants, inclusion programs in the host country confine their settling to the shantytown or subject them to voluntary return programs. Both contexts can be translated as state actions of forced (im)mobility.

I have showed that Spanish institutions have implemented projects for social inclusion that have competing and contrasting understandings of temporality, and which impose these divergent temporalities on the target group, Romani migrants living in El Gallinero. The inclusion agreement under the name of “social contract” allowed me to problematize the (a)temporality of citizenship and to shed light on how the temporality of migrants is manipulated in social programs. My hope is that this chapter opens up the possibility for further debates with respect to the correlation between temporality and ethics in managing migration.


  1. 1.

    Hereafter I refer to the project APOI, initiated by the Red Cross and ACCEM as an “in-camp” housing program that in fact developed temporary camps for Romani migrants.

  2. 2.

    i.e. National Roma Integration Strategy, Plan Integral del Pueblo Gitano in Catalonia.

  3. 3.

    While I preserved the anonymity of my informants by changing the names in the text, I felt it important to display the gender of the person for further interpretation.

  4. 4.

    RMI is Renta Minima de Inclusion, which is given to a few of the inhabitants of El Gallinero, but no one living in Delicias receives it. It is not enough to have a residence in the Madrid region and to prove that one is unemployed to receive the subsidy from the state; it requires proof that a person is actively engaged in looking for work or already has a promise of work.

  5. 5.

    Lit. in Spanish means “chicken farm” because the shantytown was built on the place of an old chicken farm.

  6. 6.

    Lit. in Spanish “expansion” which denotes in a awkward way an urban development, but that people living there call the same area în groapă which means lit. in Romanian “in the pit.”

  7. 7.

    Lit. in Spanish meaning “the upper” part of an area.

  8. 8.

    Junta de Compensación de Valdecarros

  9. 9.

    In 2016, Instituto de Realojamiento y Inserción Social (IRIS) de la Consejería de Vivienda y Infraestructura was renamed Agencia de la Vivienda Social de la Comunidad de Madrid. From now on I will refer to this institution as IRIS.

  10. 10.

    Acuerdo Marco Social para la Cañada Real Galiana has been signed between the regional authority of Madrid and the local authorities of Madrid city, Coslada and Getafe for the development and implementation of social measures depicted in the law 2/2011 of Cañada Real Galiana.

  11. 11.

    The program APOI deployed by ACCEM.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Social and Behavioural SciencesUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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