Being a mayor of a town, especially one in decline economically and agriculturally, has got to be burdensome. We can’t begin to describe how it must feel to see the place you love in decline, let alone prescribe a remedy to fix the situation.
For the mayor of one small Italian village, it meant thinking outside the box and going against the grain of his country as a whole. But he would learn that for all the good it did, there would be some unwanted consequences…
Riace was a hilltop village on Italy’s south coast that had been there since the medieval times. It had been there through the best and worst of hundreds of years of history but was threatened with extinction in the past couple of decades. The village was being drained as its residents moved away.
During the economic boom of the ‘90s, people were moving to northern Italy or out of the country for better opportunities. By the turn of the century, Riace was on the verge of being a ghost town. There were many derelict houses and the local school was just a handful of students away from shuttering its doors.
At the same time, the village’s mayor Domenico Lucano saw another problem each day when he read the headlines. Some refugees who came to Italy were having a hard time getting back on their feet after relocating. To him, the twin problems had a single solution.
“There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here,” Domenico said. “It’s simple.” He pitched an idea to the Italian government and they agreed to help with what he saw as an elegant solution to both problems: allow the refugees to live in the abandoned homes and provide them with job training.
Working As Planned
Over the course of the next decade and a half, thousands of immigrants passed through Riace, most of them staying temporarily until they took newly acquired job skills to work in other parts of Italy. But about 500 of them stayed as well, bringing the village’s population up to roughly 2,300 people.
Many in the town were skeptical of the project at first but it was hard to deny the much needed benefits it brought to the town. The system helped generate jobs for locals, mostly as teachers and translators. The added population helped a lot as well, allowing a handful of shops and the town’s one bar to reopen.
Message of Hope
“The multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace have revolutionized what was becoming a ghost town,” Domenico said. “What I hope from this story is to spread a message of humanity, hope and anti-racism to the world. Others should see how the welcoming of migrants is possible but also beneficial to the host communities.”
A New Life
“I don’t feel like a foreigner or a stranger here in Riace,” says Rawda, a woman who came from Somalia with her husband and daughter in 2011. “This is a new life for our family. My daughters couldn’t go to school in Somalia. Now I’m feeling really lucky, I can give my children a new future. They’ll grow up to be world citizens.” But the success story wouldn’t last forever.
Change of Opinion
In the 2010s, the attitude toward immigrants shifted in Italy. Europe was experiencing a migrant crisis, while at the same time, the Italian government shifted more toward the right. One of the politicians who came into office in 2018 was Matteo Salvini, who was the deputy prime minister and minister of the interior.
Salvini was vehemently against the immigration program that Riace had set up with the previous Italian government and against Mayor Lucano as a result of it. The Italian government arrested Domenico, alleging that he had abused government funds and helped to facilitate marriages of convenience for immigrants to get citizenship. Salvini said the arrest showed that their government had “declared war” on the immigration business.
Take That, Do-Gooders
As part of that war Salvini and his right-wing League Party was waging, he also pledged to drastically cut funds for all migrant reception and integration services. He then tweeted out “Let’s see what all the other do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants will say now.”
The interior ministry also said that all migrants living in the town of Riace would be transferred away and put into other migrant centers or, if they chose to stay in the village, would no longer “benefit from the reception system.” Such a move would be a devastating blow to the town that was just coming out of its decline.
‘Absurd And Unjustified’
Domenico said in a statement that the interior ministry is “out to destroy us,” vowing to appeal the transfers. Mario Oliverio, the president of the region in which Riace resides, said the move was “absurd and unjustified,” adding “I hope the objective behind the decision isn’t to stop a reception project that has been extremely positive, appreciated, and recognized internationally.
As for the charges against the mayor, it turned out there was nothing behind the allegations of “funding irregularities.” Investigators found that while the management of funds may have been less than orderly, there was no evidence that any money at all had been misappropriated.
But as for the accusations that he had facilitated in the arrangement of marriages, there appeared to be a stronger case against Domenico. Through wire-tapping his phone, prosecutors said that they recorded at least one conversation where the mayor seemed to suggest marriage as a solution to a woman’s immigration woes.
‘The Only Way’
According to prosecutors Domenico had spoken with a Nigerian woman who had been denied residence three times previously. He apparently said to her that marrying an Italian citizen was “the only way forward.” There were other recordings of him referring to similar weddings in the past, as well as suggesting he could use his powers as mayor to quickly arrange a ceremony.
While it wasn’t exactly clear what would happen to the mayor, the interior ministry’s actions were generating a lot of anger and frustration with some Italians. Former prime minister Enrico Letta was among them, tweeting: “For shame. This is not Italy!”
“Salvini’s priorities in Calabria are to send away families and children and dismantle a model of integration that has worked and is known around the world,” said Laura Boldrini, a former speaker of parliament.
Some other critics pointed out other problems with the priorities of the interior ministry. Considering Calabria is where the mafia exerts its strongest influence, they felt it absurd that a crackdown on immigrants was their focus.
Oppressing The Oppressed
Luigi de Magistris, who was the mayor of Naples and had worked in Calabria as a prosecutor for nine years was among those critics. “If [Mayor] Lucano is the danger in Calabria, it means the mafia is winning,” he said. “If the government decides to deport the oppressed, fragile victims of oppressors from the world’s regimes, then Riace must become a stronghold of the resistance.”