Fortress Europe?

Domenico Lucano - Wikimedia commons CC SA-BY 4.0
Domenico Lucano – Wikimedia commons CC SA-BY 4.0

Early in June this year, in the small town of Riace in Calabria, a delegation of three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), activists and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other organisations presented a dossier illustrating the extent to which, at the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’, the humane treatment of refugees is being not just vilified but actually criminalised.

The three MEPs were:

Rescuing refugees: a lesson from Riace

Between January 2021 and March 2022, 89 people who had assisted asylum seekers in their efforts to reach a safe country were hounded, the majority accused of aiding people to enter or transit countries, or to stay. According to Viviana di Bartolo of SOS Mediterranée, NGOs rescuing refugees from small boats, once lauded as angels of the sea, are now decried as marine taxis. Their work has not changed.

In addition, documentation from the Border Violence Monitoring Network describes violent treatment of more than 12,000 migrants by authorities on Europe’s external borders, and particularly along the Balkans route. Fortress Europe is becoming a reality.

The choice of the apparently unremarkable town of Riace on the Ionian coast for the event was because some years ago the then mayor, Domenico Lucano, became globally recognised for his leading role in devising and administering a visionary project to welcome refugees. The project provided homes for the newcomers in houses left empty by emigration from the impoverished and fragile Italian south, as well as work and training for both immigrants and locals.

The local economy was stimulated by the needs of the new citizens for health services, schools, language support, recycling collections, utilities, shops, cafes. The depopulated and dying town began to thrive again. Confirming local support for the project, Lucano was voted in as mayor three times. He won international awards (including the 2017 Dresden Peace Prize) as well as recognition by Pope Francis on national television for his humanity and achievements. People came from near and far to observe how refugees were being integrated into the life of the town. Similar projects were set up in Italy and elsewhere.

Refugees become scapegoats to populism

In 2018, in step with the global growth of populism, the political mood in Italy darkened. The successful Riace project was a thorn in the flesh for politicians who preferred to project an image of a country besieged and overwhelmed by foreigners. These vulnerable people were presented as the enemy, the scapegoat for anything that people perceived as wrong with their lives.

Investigations were launched into the management of the project. Administrative errors – unsurprising given the pressure over the years from regional administration for Riace to take in more people than it was ever equipped for – were magnified into crimes at the subsequent trial.

Despite the lack of real evidence and the admission by the judge that Lucano had already been cleared of many of these minor errors by the Supreme Court and despite acknowledgement that he was always motivated by humanitarian concerns, the trial in the court at Locri ended with a prison sentence of 13 years and two months for him (nearly double what the prosecution had demanded), and long sentences for his co-workers, as well as massive fines.

From the start of the trial it had been clear that the prosecution’s aim was to present Lucano and the project as criminal, with the accused motivated solely by personal (pecuniary or political) gain. No account was taken, it seems, of the two main planks of the project: refugees were given the training and experience to enable them to contribute to the local economy, and the town and its hinterland benefitted economically and socially from their presence. A win-win situation in other words.

Britain’s criminalisation of refugees

The looking glass world of the courtroom at Locri has an echo closer to home, with the frightened and vulnerable asylum seekers who wash up on England’s shores threatened with deportation and electronic tagging – methods more suited to dealing with dangerous criminals. This callous treatment – likely to reinforce a widespread misguided sub-conscious association of criminal behaviour with refugees– is transparently designed to play to the gallery of the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party. It is, tragically, playing with human lives.

The weekend event at Riace was part of a global effort to focus attention on such injustices. Letters have been sent to the Italian president Sergio Mattarella and the prime minister Mario Draghi, expressing the opinion that the sentencing of Lucano and his co-workers is a parody of justice and a clear violation of the principles of liberty, democracy and equality that the EU claims to uphold.

The event, well reported in Italian media and linked to a nearby human rights film festival in Naples, was one encouraging sign of an international turn in opinion against the tide of xenophobic vilification and persecution. A recent documentary about Riace shown during the event, El cielo sobre Riace was made by the Argentinia director Damian Olivito, Lucano’s cousin, whose grandparents had been forced by poverty to emigrate from Riace in the last century.

Appeal launched

An appeal against the extraordinary sentences was launched in May at the Court of Appeal in Reggio di Calabria. Lucano’s defence lawyers, one of whom is the MEP and former mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia, are calling for the exoneration of Lucano and his co-defendants of all criminal charges. They promise to deliver a comprehensive demolition of the extraordinary 904-page document published in December 2021, in which the trial judges attempt to justify their draconian sentences. The bulk of this document comprises cut-and-pasted transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations (themselves of contestable admissibility as evidence under Italian constitutional law), accompanied by tendentious and highly contestable interpretations.

Many Italian commentators have been shocked by the judges’ tone of naked polemical aggression and personalised vilification, as well as their refusal to acknowledge the ethical and humanitarian motives of the Riace project. In sum, they grotesquely caricature Lucano as a greedy local crime boss.

The appeal hearing resumes on 6 July 2022.

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