In the two decades up to 2018 more than 6,000 refugees passed through the small town of Riace in Calabria. A good number made their home there. Riace, like much of the Italian south, had for many years suffered depopulation as young people left in search of a better life, leaving behind a predominantly elderly population. Local crafts died out, houses were abandoned. Shops, bars, services, surgery and school became unviable. The town was dying.
A haven for refugees
Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace from 2004 to 2018, welcomed the influx of refugees. In 1998, as a young teacher distressed at the stranding on a nearby beach of a boatload of Kurdish refugees, he helped find them shelter in Riace’s abandoned houses. His humanitarian actions were in part inspired by the efforts the previous year in nearby Badolato to house refugees in dignity, in part by the history of Riace, which has always been part of a Mediterranean network of trade and migration. The two 5th century BC Greek bronze statues found in the sea off the coast of Riace Marina in 1972 testify to this history, as do the two 4th century saints and martyrs, twin brothers Cosmas and Damian, much venerated locally who, as Syrian doctors, are reputed to have brought valuable medical knowledge to the town. Some grateful immigrants named their babies after these saints. Historic openness to incomers, and awareness of the struggles of family members far from home in the north or across the Atlantic, gave locals a strong empathy for the plight of refugees. Migration is ‘in our DNA’, according to Lucano.
In 1999, along with like-minded townspeople, he founded Città Futura, a project to tackle jointly the problems of depopulation and the needs of refugees. Given low living costs and the availability of abandoned houses, Lucano and his team were able to make the statutory daily €35 per refugee go further than providing board and lodging. They put into action a comprehensively thought-out scheme enabling refugees to acquire the knowledge and skills to become self-sufficient citizens. Local laws and regulations were carefully explained: adhering to them was a condition of being accepted onto the scheme.
Reinvigorating the town
Permission was sought from owners of empty properties both to house the refugees and, as a source of employment and income for the town, to provide accommodation for tourists, who would spend some of their stay volunteering on restoration and sustainability projects. Training in basic construction skills enabled refugees and locals together to renovate the housing stock. The newcomers were able to live in the heart of town alongside the locals, and house owners, some scattered far afield, benefitted from a small rent.
Workshops to revive traditional skills such as weaving, pottery and joinery were set up. The old olive press was restored, providing training and work for locals and newcomers. Terraces to grow fruit and vegetables were established. The sinking of a well was the first use in Calabria of local resources to provide all the population with free drinking water. A recycling system using donkeys and carts to negotiate the steep alleys provided employment for four people. In allocating work, the Riace project followed a rule of one local to one refugee, to build relationships and facilitate language learning.
Local services and businesses benefitted from the refugees’ arrival. With the influx of children, the school was able to stay open. Shops, bars and surgery became viable again. Language lessons, legal advice and interpreting provided more employment. The scheme provided a daily €2.50 ‘bonus’ for groceries to allow families some financial autonomy, and whenever statutory funding was delayed a local currency allowed the refugees to buy from Riace’s businesses, which were paid when funds came through.
In short, the project provided the means for the newcomers to become productive and committed citizens, and in so doing stimulated the local economy. All initiatives were undertaken openly in consultation with the locals and with the blessing of SPRAR, the national system for the protection of refugees, whose formation had been influenced by the Riace project.
A feeling of solidarity
There was some tension but as people worked and trained together links were formed, experiences shared, friendships made. A vibrant social life returned to the town. Some of the migrants started their own scheme to help out elderly locals. Older women in the town babysat for young migrant mothers. Though many refugees moved on once their asylum process ended, some of the original Riace families returned to the revitalised town.
Riace thrived in its new identity as a progressive open town. The various origins of the newcomers – at least 20 nationalities – were celebrated with street art and the annual festival, in which music, theatre and film focussed on themes of migration, local culture and resistance to ‘ndrangheta, the local mafia. Original residents and new citizens alike often expressed pride in ‘their’ Riace and ‘their’ mayor. In 2010 Lucano was a runner-up in the World Mayor competition, in 2016 Fortune magazine named him as one of the 50 most influential leaders in the world, and he won the 2017 Dresden Peace Prize. The Pope expressed support on national TV. Local priests approved and gave practical help. School visits were arranged and people came from different parts of the world to learn from the Riace model.
Clampdown by the populists
Nationally, in the face of continuing arrivals of refugees and reluctance on the part of various EU nations to assist, over time policy changed from a willingness to accept the refugees to strengthening defences to keep them out. Refugees were now represented as a threat. The Riace project was subject to two years of investigations, including phone tapping. In 2018 the Italian election resulted in the right wing populist Lega party entering into a coalition with the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement. A successful project to integrate refugees did not suit the Lega, whose slogan was Italians First. Matteo Salvini, the Interior Minister, as well as insisting Italian ports turn away ships filled with desperate migrants rescued from the sea, promoted the Security Decree, scrapping humanitarian protection for refugees and cutting funding. Lucano was charged with organising marriages of convenience and abuse of funds. He endured 11 months of exile from Riace. In 2019 along with 26 project supporters, he was indicted for abuse of power, aiding illegal immigration and fraudulent award of contracts.
The Ministry for the Interior and the Prefecture of Reggio Calabria became involved, and when proceedings were due to begin in Locri, a heavy police presence was brought into the town – excessive measures for the focus of the trial, much of which hinges on the use of surplus funds.
One might have expected approval that the €35 per person state funding allocation was made to go further in Riace, enabling people to contribute to the life and economy of the town. Instead Lucano and his team face serious charges. And yet the Supreme Court ruled in February 2019 that the awarding of the recycling contracts was all above board, and investigators were unable to find proof that ‘serious irregularities’ in Riace had been a source of personal profit for Lucano. On the contrary, they had to acknowledge that everything had been done for humanitarian reasons. On January 11th, part of the prosecution’s case collapsed, when a witness withdrew his accusation of extortion. The case for the defence is now due to begin.
The crime is helping people
From the start there has been a blurring of the distinction between serious crimes and administrative irregularities. There are specific sanctions for not following SPRAR procedures. If any administrative irregularities took place in Riace, these sanctions would have been the appropriate response, not a criminal trial. The mechanisms, publicly known and officially approved, which for years allowed Riace to build a new community in which refugees and locals lived and worked peaceably together, which revitalised the town, have retrospectively been branded crimes. The local press has joined in with smears and insinuations.
It begins to seem like a show trial, designed to warn other communities off such humanitarian efforts. Whatever the real reason, in 2018 the Riace project was closed by the Ministry for the Interior and the migrants transferred to other facilities – a move later confirmed by the Consiglio di Stato as having been illegal.
The progress of the trial is being kept in the public eye by a Milan-based academic, Giovanna Procacci, who attended hearings until Covid made that impossible. Her reports are on the platform Pressenza. Whatever the outcome the project, a model for the reception of refugees and for peaceful collaboration with the potential to guide a positive future migration policy, has ended – at least for now.
But in more than 300 municipalities around the globe, inspired to adapt the model for local conditions, the Riace project lives on.
Ed: A full bibliography is available on request from [email protected].
Update January 22, 2021: Lucano has written an account of the Riace project, published in Italian as ‘Il Fuorilegge‘. An English publisher is being sought.