Italian town saved by refugees fights government anti-immigration policy

Once a ghost town, integration programme revitalises Riace

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The alleyways of the Italian town of Riace are adorned with dozens of murals that show its long-standing relationship with migration.

But the country’s new populist government is threatening a project locals say successfully integrated hundreds of refugees and migrants into the town of just over 2,000 people.

Mayor Domenico Lucano, the project's figurehead, was placed under house arrest earlier this month on charges of involvement in organising “marriages of convenience” for asylum seekers.

On Saturday Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, ordered all migrants in Riace be transferred to refugee centres next week.

Mr Salvini hailed the arrest as proof that the country’s new government was serious about ending the “immigration business”.

"What will all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants say now?" Mr Salvini wrote on Twitter.

Mr Lucano, who was also accused of skipping a tender process in order to award a waste-management contract to cooperatives with ties to migrants, spearheaded Citta Futura – Future City – in 1999.


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For almost two decades the project welcomed migrants to the sparsely populated Calabrian town in a bid to boost jobs and development. Known as the Riace model, the programme led to abandoned houses being restored and craft workshops being reopened, providing work for locals and foreigners alike.

The project was lauded by many as a model of integration.

But Riace's efforts risk being dismantled by Mr Salvini as it runs out of money due to the interior ministry’s block on funds.

As a result, Riace’s local government accumulated a debt of €2 million (Dh8.49mn).

Before his arrest, Mr Lucano – known as Mimmo – could be found on the steps of the Donna Rosa restaurant in the town’s central square.

"They are destroying the area. We risk everything being closed down, even the kindergarten,” he said. “We might have continued even without European funds as an independent self-sustaining project, but two years has been too long and we have accumulated too many debts.”

The town of Riace is seen in the southern Italian region of Calabria November 22, 2013. Riace is a small village in Calabria, a poor region in the south of Italy. Many of the village's former residents left in search of better opportunities elsewhere in Italy or abroad. In recent years, however, the mayor Domenico Lucano has introduced a scheme to encourage immigrants to come to Riace and breathe new life into the village. The immigrant's children have revitalized the local school, which suffered from a lack of students. Picture taken November 22, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi  (ITALY- Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION)


On Saturday protesters gathered outside Mr Lucano’s window to demand the release of their mayor, chanting “keep strong, continue fighting”. The mayor could be seen raising a fist in support.

The political differences between Mr Salvini’s anti-immigration, hard-right Lega Nord and left-leaning Mr Lucano has compounded the widening rift.

Riace’s residents claim Mr Salvini is purposefully sabotaging the project. In response they gathered in a collective hunger strike since July and shut down all of the workshops tasked with creating embroidery items, ceramics, kites and glass crafts. The sign “I, too, support Riace” can be seen hanging in many shop windows.

"The funding blockage is like having suffered a bereavement,” said grocery shop owner Mimma. "The migrants have taught us to live. When new ones arrive they feel immediately at home, and it is as if they have always lived here with us."

Because of its location Italy is a gateway into northern Europe – but the country’s weak economy and inadequate help from the European Union has aided Mr Salvini's propaganda about a so-called "invasion" of the country.

Although current and past governments increased their popularity by tapping into a widespread fear of foreigners, Riace often put itself forward to host new arrivals, especially those most in need.

Mohammed is a 64-year-old Iraqi of Palestinian origin. He fled Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and today has both a home and a monthly stipend of €260.

This may end if Mr Salvini succeeds in relocating Riace’s guests to a camp.

Migrants demonstrate in support of the mayor of the town Domenico Lucano in front of his house in the southern Italian town of Riace, October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Bayram, a 65-year-old Kurd, arrived in 1998 from Turkey. He helped reconstruct hillside terracing and is currently working as a carpenter and driver.

"Whoever is blocking this model should see how Riace was twenty years ago,” says 29-year-old Antonio, who works as an assistant in Bayram’s carpentry shop.

“There was absolutely nothing and the only event was the annual patron saint festival. Young people were forced to emigrate, which I will probably have to do next year,” he says, sitting nervously amid other protesters.

Next year Mr Lucano’s second and last term will end. Meanwhile Mr Salvini is rallying to win local elections in the country’s south, despite his northern secessionist movement's hostility towards them.

"In the past we were the ones who left for the cities in the north of Italy or for Australia, but now there are new people coming here, the new migrants," says Raffaele, a local farmer who sells home-grown fruit.

Far from Italy’s growing isolationism, residents of Riace hope they can overturn Mr Salvini’s decision to relocate their guests. But the future remains unclear.

And as the children of immigrants chase each other on Riace's football pitch, shouting at each other in the Calabrian dialect, they are oblivious to the fact they could soon lose everything their parents risked their lives for – and so are their Italian peers who, amid the south’s interminable afternoons, have, at last, found someone to play football with.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 22, 2011, Riace mayor, Domenico Lucano poses in his office with a young girl from Ethiopia.  The Prosecutor's Office of Locri in Calabria announced on October 2, 2018 the arrest of Lucano, the mayor of Riace, a small village that has been hosting migrants and asylum seekers for years, on the grounds of suspected aid to illegal immigration. / AFP / MARIO LAPORTA