The southern Italian town of Riace has been held up as a model for integration since it began welcoming immigrants in 1998. This week, with Riace’s mayor under house arrest, Italy’s interior ministry has pledged to call time on the model and relocate the migrants still living there.
In the twenty years since the small Calabrian town of Riace has been receiving migrants, it has often featured in the world’s media. Slightly crumbling houses line the seafront of Riace Marina and cling to the hillside in the hinterland behind. Olive trees and hardy bushes surround the houses plastered in sandstone and ochre colors.
Like many towns in southern Italy, where youth unemployment can hit 60 percent, the town had become depopulated after many of its original residents migrated for work to northern Italy, Europe and beyond.
When a group of Kurdish migrants landed on the shores of the town in 1998, they appeared to revive the community and its local economy by taking over the abandoned houses.
A model of integrationSince then, the town has become a model of integration for many around the world. The town’s mayor Domenico (Mimmo) Lucano was even listed on Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list at number 40 in 2016. Trained as a schoolteacher, Lucano was part of a group of citizens who offered the use of Riace’s abandoned apartments and job training to the first migrants who arrived. Later as mayor he continued that strategy in an official capacity. According to Fortune Magazine, the town has hosted more than 6,000 asylum seekers from around 20 nations worldwide.
According to the Italian office of national statistics ISTAT, the population of Riace has gradually climbed since 2001 from about 1610 residents to more than 2300 residents in 2018.
The town and its mayor have come under fire on several grounds, however.
Two cooperatives were commissioned by the town to remove rubbish by donkey cart from the narrow streets of the hillside town. The mayor is being accused, after investigations by local magistrates that began under Italy’s previous Democratic government, of not going through the correct tender process before awarding rubbish contracts to the local cooperatives.
He is further accused of arranging false marriages to allow migrants to stay in the country after their application for asylum was refused. The mayor himself denies these accusations.
Lucano was put under house arrest on 2nd October. Speaking to reporters, he said that he respected the Italian constitution more than many others. For him, he said, it was first and foremost about respecting humanity regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
On the subject of fake marriages, he said he only celebrated one marriage and it was a real one, not fake. As for the accusations regarding rubbish collection, he alluded to the rubbish mafias which have been found to dominate many of Italy’s collection contracts, the so called ‘Eco-Mafia’.
“All I did was try to bring light and cleanliness to the town,” he said. “It is absurd”, he added, “saving one person from the street makes what I did as mayor worthwhile. Even if I just allowed one person to have a normal life then that is enough for me for life. I gave jobs to those who were at their most disadvantaged, to disabled people and to some foreigners.”
A political war
Mayor Lucano’s supporters say this is all part of a “political war” being waged by the current right-wing populist coalition government led by the Northern League and the Five Star Movement. Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini (leader of La Lega – The Northern League) however, has repeatedly pointed out that the investigations into Riace were initiated by his Democratic Party predecessor Marco Minniti.
Salvini tweeted over the weekend that “those who do something wrong must pay;” adding, “we can’t tolerate irregularities in the use of public funds, not even with the excuse of those funds having been spent on immigrants.” In response, some of Salvini’s critics reminded him that the Northern League party, which he now leads, was accused of having misused 49 million euros under its former leader Umberto Bossi.
Several protests and demonstrations have been staged across the country since the mayor was put under house arrest, including this one in Rome.
One of Salvini’s harshest critics is the anti-Mafia author Roberto Saviano. Saviano has lived under police protection since he wrote a revealing book about the Neapolitan crime families (The Camorra) in 2006 entitled Gomorra. One of his latest videos on the national online newspaper Fanpage.it gives more context about the arrest of Lucano and the “attack” as he sees it on the Riace model.
Saviano: ‘No personal gains’
Saviano says Lucano’s only crime is to have decided to “civilly disobey.” For example, “to have made sure that someone without any documents could obtain a national identity card.” He adds that Lucano “reanimated a deserted town;” he “welcomed children who you will still find in Riace today.”
Saviano points out that at no point in the prosecutor’s report was there any reference to personal interest on the part of Mayor Lucano or that he made any personal economic gains.
Saviano adds further context in order to dismantle the accusations levelled at Lucano. He reminds us that the area in which Riace is situated is the Locride, known “as the world capital of narco-trafficking, a land of blood and cocaine.” With a raise of his eyebrow, he asks the viewer “and the problem is Mimmo Lucano?” Then he answers his own question: “those who know him and Calabria know that the problem is definitely not Mimmo Lucano.” Saviano states that he is “convinced that every single part of the investigation will be proved wrong by the facts.”
Later in the video Saviano accuses Salvini of “taking the first step towards an authoritarian regime” because he is “using this investigation to further his own propaganda.” He invites the young audience to “defend democracy and democratically take apart the accusations levelled at Mimmo Lucano to show that this is not the country in which we want to live.”
On Sunday it was reported that the Ministry of the Interior wants to move the migrants away from Riace. Newspapers and Salvini himself say that the Democratic Party are accusing the government of wanting to “deport” the migrants who have made Riace their home. As of Monday, an official confirmation of the Ministry’s plans was not forthcoming.
The head of the migrant center in Riace, Daniela Di Capua, spoke on Radio Capital to explain that contrary to the media reports, no one was going to be transferred immediately. She said that eventual transfers are being “proposed not imposed” and that there “will be no deportations from Riace because the asylum seekers and migrants are free people.”
Italy’s national broadcaster RAI said that of the 200 migrants currently living in the SPRAR center, 100 are ready to be transferred.
One local African migrant interviewed on television said that she hoped Salvini “doesn’t do it. We would have to start all over again. It would be a disaster for us because here [in Riace] we feel integrated and we have everything.” Other migrant residents have been to visit the mayor under house arrest to underline the fact that they do not want to be moved.
Salvini has been posting on Facebook regarding Riace and his views on immigration. In a post on Monday he wrote “with me, mass immigration will no longer be a thing. The fun is over.”
Mimmo Lucano is due to appear before magistrates on Tuesday to begin the hearing into the accusations he faces. It was reported he arrived at the hearing in Reggio Calabria with his lawyer and declined to make a statement to the press. A sit-in to support the mayor was planned for later on Tuesday.