After mayor's arrest, Italy's model migrant town struggles to survive

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After mayor's arrest, Italy's model migrant town struggles to survive
The tiny town of Riace was hailed as Italy's most successful integration project. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

The artisan shops in Riace's historic centre are shuttered and its alleyways quiet as locals wait to see what will happen to Italy's world-renowned model of migrant integration.


The mayor of the hilltop hamlet in Calabria was hounded out of town earlier this week for favouring illegal immigration, but Domenico Lucano has vowed to fight on to protect the way of life here.

He will have to do it from afar as he is banned from Riace, once a ghost town before Lucano, 60, opened the door to migrants and asylum-seekers.

"I'm not going to give up. Riace represents an idea which counters barbarism and we'll go on even without state aid," Lucano said in an interview with AFPTV.

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Mayor Domenico Lucano earlier this week. Photo: Franck Iovene/AFP

Under the programme he started, Riace's abandoned houses were restored, artisan shops were opened and the tourists flocked to see a place where around 400 of its 1,800 inhabitants are foreigners, from Africa to Pakistan and Syria.

But last week the Italian interior ministry ordered the programme shut down after an investigation, which was launched in 2016, uncovered alleged administrative wrongdoing. A judicial inquiry has also raised suspicions of "marriages of convenience" for asylum purposes.

Lucano was placed briefly under house arrest, before a court allowed him out but banished him from Riace.

The state had already turned off the tap, withholding the €35 it pays migrant centres daily for each person, affecting roughly a third of the migrant population in Riace.

The bustling alleyways of the village which overlooks the Ionian Sea have gradually become quiet and empty. The shops in the so-called "global village" have shut one after another.

READ ALSO: Italy shutters tiny town's landmark migrant model

Afghan refugees outside their workshop in 2011. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

Not everyone is as gung-ho as Lucano about soldiering on without the government's subsidies.

"We haven't been receiving money for months now, we are tired and feel abandoned," said Rosine, a woman from Cameroon who worked in a textile shop funded by the project and, like other migrants, did not want to give her surname.

"They cut the electricity off because we could not pay and this summer we were finally forced to close," she said.

Even though the town's difficulties began before Italy's anti-immigration League joined a coalition government in June, she accuses its head -- interior minister Matteo Salvini -- of wanting to "stir up trouble over the migrant question".

Salvini, who has taken a hardline on immigration to Italy, has accused Lucano of seeking to "replace Italians with Africans", saying he is "not the modern hero" people claim.

The mayor's supporters say that if he broke the law he did so to protect the vulnerable, not for personal gain.

A girl walks past one of Riace's public murals. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

The inhabitants have been living in limbo since his arrest. The air of gloom lifts slightly as volunteers from a neighbouring town arrive with gifts of food, clothes and toys for the youngsters.

Johnjoy, a 35-year old Nigerian, is worried about her four young children. "The mayor is like a second father to them. What's going to happen to us now he's gone?" she asked.

Lucano says he still has many cards up his sleeve. "Over the years we have created structural aids to integration, with projects for organic farming, an oil press and a number of artisan shops," he said.

"But what really makes the difference is the solidarity tourism we experienced at the start, attracting people from across Europe to come and spend their holidays here," he said.

"It's that type of tourism we need to rekindle." 

READ ALSO: Anger over Italian government's 'war' on model migrant town

'Welcoming is in our roots': a mural in Riace. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

By AFP's Franck Iovene



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