In early December, speaking at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, Pope Francis called for nations to welcome strangers at their door. One man who spent decades doing exactly that, his efforts praised by the Pope on Italian national television, now faces a prison sentence of thirteen years for his efforts.
Domenico Lucano brought the impoverished and depopulated community of Riace on the Calabrian coast to world-wide attention. For more than two decades he and his team dared to welcome strangers. He worked to create an integrated society in which people fleeing war, hunger and persecution were offered housing left empty by townspeople emigrating in search of a better life elsewhere and, along with locals, given training and employment in crafts that had virtually disappeared from the area.
With labour provided by volunteers and the immigrants themselves, the empty houses were made habitable. The influx of new young families stimulated the local economy and made the school, medical services and local businesses viable again. Nationally each refugee was entitled to 35 euros per day to cover basic subsistence. In this poor region the project was able to provide subsistence for less. The excess was used to provide the necessary training in woodwork, glasswork, weaving and embroidery and enabled the restoration of the olive press, which consequently was able to employ twenty people.
This was in stark contrast to the experience of most refugees in Italy, housed in barracks away from centres of population, and unable to access work or training.
Between 2014 and 2016 more refugees arrived than Italy’s reception systems could cope with. Aware that Lucano, Riace’s mayor, would never turn anyone away, the authorities sent many more than the town was equipped for. In Riace the welfare and dignity of the immigrants were always prioritised and inevitably the pressure Lucano’s team came under, exacerbated by improvised rules and policy changes endemic in the Italian reception services, meant paperwork suffered.
A change in attitude towards refugees around this time nationally and globally, stoked by emerging populism, made the thriving experiment at Riace a thorn in the flesh for those politicians who, as in the turbulent Thirties, were bent on focussing resentment on people perceived to be outsiders. The national policy for dealing with desperate people arriving by sea became characterised by refusal of rescue, closed ports and expulsion.
In 2016 an investigation was launched into what were said to be financial irregularities in the running of the Riace project. Investigators were able to point to administrative shortcomings (including incomplete documentation), overstaying (for which permission could be granted on humanitarian grounds though requests often went unanswered) and failure to seek permission before putting the savings made on the daily allowance towards work and training opportunities.
Lucano had always been open about the money being used in this way to revive the local economy, a circumstance surely deserving of praise. It had not previously been seen as problematic and no inspection found any irregularities to be a source of personal profit. But rather than being treated as administrative lapses to be dealt with by specified sanctions, these were presented as criminal acts. The use of funding to benefit the citizens, old and new, of Riace was represented as a conspiracy to assure Lucano of future electoral success, even though his last permitted period as mayor had started in 2014, before the investigations started. In effect, Lucano’s goodwill was exploited during the period of elevated numbers of arrivals, after which his resulting difficulties were turned against him.
In 2018 he was arrested, the pioneering Riace project was closed down and the refugees relocated. A criminal trial, with security measures in excess of most mafia trials, was held in the regional court in Locri during 2020 and 2021. Like Lucano, all the defendants (volunteers and workers in the project) had clean records and even the prosecutor had to admit that Lucano was driven by humanitarian motives. The trial was followed closely by Giovanna Procacci, a sociology professor at Milan University, who filed regular reports on the Pressenza website. Throughout she noted the dissonance between minor shortcomings at Riace and their characterisation as crimes. Giovanna has written a series of articles for our sister publication NE Bylines on the trial.
Shockingly, on 30 September Lucano was sentenced to more than 13 years imprisonment and ordered to repay 700,000 euros to the state. Similarly preposterous sentences were handed out to the co-defendants. Their supposed crimes included criminal conspiracy for the purpose of irregular immigration. The irony of voluntary associations and poorly funded co-operatives being accused of conspiracy in this mafia-infested area is stark, and cases of murder have received lesser sentences. The respected newspaper La Repubblica found the sentencing ‘so cruelly excessive as to immediately make one wonder if it can be serious’.
The Italian satirist Maurizio Crozza was probably closest to the truth when he called Lucano’s crime “aggravated humanity”.
Since the sentencing, defence lawyers have announced they will take the case to the Court of Appeal at Reggio di Calabria and international events in support of Lucano have taken place in Paris and Milan.
Is it possible that what appears to have been a show trial, designed to warn off other humanitarian projects, was a one-off extreme miscarriage of justice, devastating for its victims, including the dispersed immigrants, but of little relevance outside Italy? Or was it perhaps a sobering straw in the wind, an indication of the advent of a more repressive and callous world in which we are seeing the re-emergence of state-sanctioned persecution based on perceived difference?
The indications are far from reassuring. Unbelievably, dozens of prosecutions have been launched in Europe against individuals and NGOs, including Médecins sans Frontières, involved in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Two search and rescue volunteers risk 25 years in prison for helping refugees on Lesvos. A Swiss pastor, Norbert Valley was condemned, but later acquitted, for providing food and shelter for a destitute Togolese man. In his words “something that is legal is not necessarily moral”. There are security fences along once-open EU borders. On the Belarusian border Polish border guards, ordered to push refugees back, have been reported to be suffering psychological problems as a result of what they have witnessed. At least 650 people have died attempting to cross from Mexico into the USA this year. France has two hard right anti-immigration candidates for the presidency. We have all read of the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and Uyghurs in China.
In the UK we have the hostile immigration policy as the Nationalities and Borders Bill passing through the Commons this month. The infamous Clause 9 aims to give the government the power to deprive a person of citizenship without notification. The Bill also aims to enable Border Force officials to turn migrants away at sea and to criminalise anyone taking part in rescue missions in the English Channel, although the Home Secretary has had to bow to pressure and exempt efforts coordinated by coastguards. Recently 27 migrants drowned in the Channel as they attempted to reach safety. Blocking safer routes doesn’t stop migrants; it just means they will take ever greater risks on more dangerous routes. If this Bill is passed, the UK will become the most hostile country in Europe towards migrants.
On our own continent and within living memory we had the bleakest imaginable demonstration of where the normalisation of such hostile attitudes can lead. The vast majority of people are decent and caring. In the face of this disturbing trend perhaps that is no longer enough. We need to leave our leaders in no doubt that we do not consider certain categories of people to be less worthy, and nor do we see compassion as a crime.
We must make our voices heard, so our leaders welcome strangers.