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A makeshift migrant camp on Spain’s abandoned Formula One circuit

Valencia, Spain – Less than a decade ago it was a massive playground for the wealthiest echelons of Valencia society in the heart of the city: a place for the elite to clink champagne glasses, watch million-dollar racing cars whizz past and inwardly congratulate themselves on forming part of a capitalist fairy-tale.

Now, though, it is a makeshift, ramshackle home for migrants, refugees and the destitute.

“I didn’t choose to live here,” Mohammed, a middle-aged Saharawi told Al Jazeera as he stood on the edge of a circle of huts made with walls of mattresses, plastic, wooden and metal poles in the centre of Valencia’s former Formula One circuit.

“I just needed a chance to work. And here, I have a small one.”

If Mohammed looks right from his Spanish “home”, less than a kilometre away, he can see the massive white curved arches of Valencia’s world-famous City of Arts and Sciences complex.

To the left, the skyline is dotted with cranes and multi-storeyed dockland buildings overlooking the Mediterranean.

In front of him, the site of the Formula One race, last held in 2012, is now a wasteland of tarmac, partly ripped up barriers and concrete, along with half a dozen circles of shacks.

About 50 people live in Valencia’s F1 shanty town [Ian Walton Hemingway/Al Jazeera]

The local council estimates roughly 50 people are living in Valencia’s F1 shanty town. Mohammed said there are “dozens” from several different countries.

“Everywhere, people want to look for work. That doesn’t distinguish between nationalities.

“There are people from Morocco. And Spain, too, the ones over there with that Spanish flag flying over their huts. One guy from Ghana has been here for years.

“But if you don’t find work,” he asks rhetorically,” where else are you going to live? How can you rent a room?”

Corruption cases

Mohammed’s predicament is far from exceptional across western Europe.

What makes this shanty town striking is that it is set in the middle of a racing circuit that has come to symbolise what local journalist and author Francesc Arabí called “an era of life in the fast lane – in all senses”.

Valencia was run by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) party until March 2015. Then, the region’s politics and some of its economic powerhouses, particularly in construction, became riddled with corruption.

Subsequent police investigations into corruption and kickback cases sometimes stretched deep into national politics.

One inquiry formed part of the Caso Gurtel, the largest pre-trial investigation in Spanish history.

That saw 29 defendants sentenced to a combined 351 years in jail, among them the PP’s former treasurer Luis Bárcenas who was sentenced to 33 years for fraud and money laundering.

The site has no electricity or running water and offers little shelter from scorching summer temperatures [Ian Walton Hemingway/Al Jazeera]

In another case, Valencia’s ex-mayor of 24 years and PP Senator Rita Barberá, who said she aimed to create a city to rival Barcelona, died when she was on trial at Spain’s Supreme Court over claims of money laundering for election campaigns by PP officials.

A continuing legal probe, known as Azud, is currently looking into links between alleged funds received by Valencia town hall, mainly between 2004-11, in exchange for favours linked to urban development, and which reportedly affects part of the land on which the now-defunct Formula One circuit stands.

At a national level, Spain’s wave of corruption cases from that era led indirectly to the downfall of PP President Mariano Rajoy through a vote of no confidence the day after the Caso Gurtel verdicts.

Meanwhile, in Valencia, the PP were removed after 20 years’ government in 2015.

‘A massive hangover’

As Spain’s worst economic crisis in half a century bit deeper, Valencia’s high-life era was still going at top speed, even though its foundations were steadily becoming undermined.

“In Valencia, society and politics and citizens were living the good life and didn’t think about what they were doing well and badly,” said Arabí, who wrote an acclaimed book, Ciudadano Camps [Citizen Camps], about the era.

“So the circuit now is a junk yard, an enormous cemetery of rubbish and nothing, and the symbol and icon of a massive hangover from that era.

“It’s hugely ironic, and sad, that it’s now home to people desperate to scrape a living as best they can.”

The circuit was previously a high-profile destination for Valencia’s upper classes during the city’s era of ‘life in the fast lane’ [Ian Walton Hemingway/Al Jazeera]

The history of the Formula One circuit could be viewed as a symbol of the city’s rollercoaster financial past, a past for which the people of Valencia are still paying.

“When the Formula One race began in 2007, the president of the region, Francisco Camps, said it would not cost the people of Valencia a single euro, and the total price was more than 300 million euros ($353m),” Arabí said.

“Only a little while back we paid off a sum of 7.5 million euros ($8.9m) that was part of the original 60 million euros ($71m) cost. And we still have two more years of payments to go.”

Delayed redevelopment

In self-contained units on huge expanses of tarmac, residents survived in recent temperatures that soared to the mid-thirties – with no electricity or running water – as they looked for work.

A grim sense of humour helps them get through.

A defunct cashpoint adorns one camp wall. Someone has scribbled over the bank symbol and written the words “out of order” below.

“I’ve been able to get a few jobs in agriculture,” Mohammed said.

While he has his documents and work permits in order, “many of the people here don’t”.

Others work informally parking cars at the nearby Malvarrosa beach.

The town hall’s social services provide some people with assistance.

A detached shack on the exit of the pit lane, with Valencia’s famous City of Arts and Sciences complex in the distance [Ian Walton Hemingway/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, protracted negotiations over a still outstanding payment by the local government of 42.9 million euros ($50.5m) for the circuit and its current owners have reportedly delayed its redevelopment.

Both the town hall and the camp dwellers insist there has been no conflict with the neighbours in large blocks of nearby flats.

According to an Algerian migrant, the police only visit to remove joyriders from putting cars through their paces on the F1 circuit.

Yet still, there are calls for the situation to be resolved.

“Just the fact that it [the camp] exists is worrying,” Vicent Martínez, the vice president of the neighbours’ association in nearby Grau-Port, recently told the local newspaper Levante-EMV.

José, an elderly man whose family ran a construction firm near the circuit, told Al Jazeera on his morning walk past the site: “I can’t say I blame them for being there.

“It’s like everything. If there’s a space, a vacant lot, people will move in.”

José said the contrast between the site’s present and not-so-distant past is stark.

He has a single standout memory of race days: “The noise from the cars. It was deafening.”

Although the site remains a symbol of Valencia’s corrupt, high-flying economic past in its corridors of power, Mohammed does not show much interest in what the Formula One circuit represents beyond his own situation.

“People are looking for a chance in society,” he says. “Each government comes and goes and does what it wants. The victims are always the same.”




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