Why Italy Arrested and Banished a Famous ‘Pro-Refugee’ Mayor

Domenico Lucano, Mayor, Riace
The Mayor of Riace, Domenico Lucano, arrives at the Court of Review in Reggio Calabria, October 16, 2018. Photo credit: © Adriana Sapone / Lapresse via ZUMA Press

Italy’s most famous small-town mayor, Domenico Lucano, has been forced out of Riace — the town where he has welcomed migrants and refugees for 20 years — over charges he arranged a sham marriage.

His supporters say the mayor’s real “crime” is being Italy’s most celebrated “do-gooder” for refugees in a time of anti-immigrant hysteria. Both the Pope and Fortune magazine have praised his town as a model for integrating displaced people from the Mideast and Africa.

There was no obvious reason for Italy’s judiciary to launch an intensive sting operation against the left-wing mayor of a hilltop hamlet. Riace is in deepest Calabria, a region where a homegrown mafia (the Ndrangheta) controls much of the economy.  

The house arrest took place on October 2 at 6:30 AM. Five officers of Italy’s Finance Police knocked on the mayor’s door at his home next to the town hall. Lucano opened the door in his pajamas.

The charge of “aiding and abetting illegal migration” is based on a wiretapped conversation about the possible marriage of a Nigerian woman denied refugee status. The mayor is also charged with awarding contracts for garbage collection — without soliciting required bids — to a firm that hires refugees.

Over the course of 18 months, Lucano was investigated for a laundry list of 31 crimes, including racketeering, embezzlement, and fraud. An investigating judge found no evidence to support any of the more serious charges.

“They arrested him for humanitarian acts,” his brother, Giuseppe, told the Observer. “For hours he was interviewed by the prosecutor — he has absolutely nothing to hide. He’s feeling confident and combative but is a little angry. There was only one [marriage], not several,” he added. “He did it to save the woman’s life.”

Matteo Salvini

Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, October 26, 2018. Photo credit: Ministry of Defense / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose Trump-inspired crackdown on immigration has made him Italy’s most powerful politician, rejoiced. “Damn,” he tweeted, “I wonder what all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants are thinking now, #Riace.”

But the mayor’s arrest wasn’t all. On October 13, Salvini ordered the deportation of all 500 migrants, from the southern town of Riace to other places in Italy, including children who were born there. However, the Interior Ministry has since backed off, saying departures would be on a voluntary basis.

The only person deported so far is Lucano. On October 16, Lucano’s house arrest was revoked and he was banished from the town where he grew up and served as mayor. This form of banishment — divieto di dimora — is normally reserved for mafia bosses. It is particularly cruel for Lucano, who turned his dying town into a “global village” — with people from 20 nationalities living there. Authorities are accusing Lucano’s partner, Lemlem Teshfahun, of being his accomplice. She may lose her right to live in Italy.

Villaggio Globale

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It would be hard to exaggerate the challenges Lucano faced when he became mayor of Riace in 2004. He oversaw a partly abandoned town in one of the poorest and most mafia-ridden corners of Italy. There was no primary school, not even a bar.

“I was born and raised here,” he told CBC Radio. “My parents, too. But my whole town has lived an experience of migration with many family members dispersed throughout the world …This place is a metaphor for a never-ending voyage. My own children don’t live here. They’ve left.”

Legambiente, an Italian environmental organization, published a study in the spring of 2016 showing that there are almost 2,500 towns and villages in Italy “past the point of no return” to becoming ghost towns.

To save his home town, Lucano hit upon a common solution to two crises affecting southern Italy: population loss and the arrival of thousands of migrants by sea. Riace was the first Italian community to lodge them in real homes rather than secluded (and usually isolated) mass housing. Today, one in four residents is foreign-born and 20 countries — Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Pakistan, to name a few — are represented in the town.

Thanks to the new arrivals, the town center was repopulated and the primary school reopened; 13 refugee children now sit in class next to eight kids born in Riace. Lucano created jobs for both migrants and locals by reviving traditional Calabrian crafts like ceramics and textiles woven from broom-plant fibers. He employed people as translators and “cultural mediators.” And Riace became one of the first towns in the region to recycle garbage.

Lucano’s activism on behalf of Mediterranean boat people really goes back to 1998. At that time he was a chemistry professor and not yet mayor. He experienced a personal epiphany when 300 Kurds, half of them children, arrived on a rocky beach near Riace. Ever since, he has worked at creating a system that would help and protect displaced people arriving by sea. In that year he founded an association to welcome refugees called Riace Citta Futura (City of the Future).

As mayor, Lucano was not simply compassionate, he was an outside the box innovator in the use of public funds to finance integration. For each asylum seeker, Riace’s town hall received €35 ($40) per day in EU funds through the SPRAR system (protection of asylum seekers and refugees). The money covers everything from accommodation to health care and language lessons for a limited period — until an asylum request is granted, or not.

Lucano used SPRAR funds to restore and rent homes to refugees that had stood empty, some of them for decades. He even issued a local Riace currency — so-called “bonus” notes or vouchers that bear the face of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, or Martin Luther King — to ensure migrants spend money in local shops. By accepting the notes, shop owners provide a line of credit, waiting for reimbursement if SPRAR payments are delayed.

In the course of three terms as mayor, Lucano achieved not only recognition for the “Riace model” but also personal celebrity. In 2010, he was third in the World Mayor competition, several places ahead of Cory Booker, still mayor of Newark at the time.

The only Italian on Fortune magazine’s 2016 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders, Lucano was praised “for saving [his] town, whose population now includes migrants from 20-some nations, and rejuvenating its economy. (Riace has hosted more than 6,000 asylum seekers in all.) Though his pro-refugee stance has pitted him against the mafia and the state, Lucano’s model is being studied and adopted as Europe’s refugee crisis crests.”

“I am aware of his initiatives, personal struggles and suffering,” wrote Pope Francis, expressing his “admiration and gratitude for his intelligence and courage deployed on behalf of our brother and sister refugees.”

German film director Wim Wenders visited Riace and was so impressed he made a feel-good docu-fiction film, Il Volo, with Ben Gazzara (in his last role) playing Lucano.

Italy’s public broadcaster, Rai, produced a TV movie in 2017 about Riace with the popular actor Beppe Fiorello playing Lucano: Tutto il Mondo è Paese (which roughly translates “the world is the same wherever you go”). But its broadcast has been suspended amid bitter accusations by Fiorello of government censorship.

‘Mass Murder’ in the Mediterranean

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To say that Italy’s current far-right government intensely dislikes the Riace model would be an understatement. But Riace’s mayor has actually had to contend with the hostility of two successive Italian governments on divergent ends of the political spectrum.

At stake is his life’s work. He asked, “How is it possible to think of destroying the ‘Riace model’, which has been described by innumerable people, politicians, intellectuals and artists, as an extraordinary experience?”

The battle for Riace really began in 2016, when the Interior Ministry blocked much of the town’s immigrant funding for reasons that were never entirely clear, despite several audits and inspections.

Lorenzo Trucco, president of ASGI (Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration), is defending Riace in court from what he calls its “legal persecution.” He has faith in the independence of Italian magistrates, he told WhoWhatWhy — “Otherwise I wouldn’t be a lawyer” — but the town is in a standoff with “an interior minister engaged in a kind of homicide against migrants.” He worries the symbolic importance attached to Riace will complicate its legal situation.

“The story of human beings is the story of migration,” he said. “The example of the United States is symbolic from this point of view for immigration and so is the history of Italy for emigration.”

The undercover investigation of Lucano began 18 months ago. As Salvini has pointed out, it was Italy’s previous Minister of the Interior in the ostensibly center-left Democratic Party, Marco Minniti, who oversaw it.

Minniti, like Lucano, is from Calabria and a man of the left, a former communist. He came into office in December, 2016, at a moment when the migrant influx had become a political crisis in Italy. Other members of the the European Union have refused to host any of the 690,000 people fleeing war, persecution, or poverty who have landed on its long coastline since 2013.

A growing number of mainstream politicians across Europe were quietly beginning to capitulate to the far right on immigration. But Minniti went much further. He masterminded the strategy of using Libyan patrols as a first line of defense against immigration by sea. And he set about blocking the operation of Mediterranean rescue boats run by humanitarian operations like Save the Children, even if it meant more migrants would drown in deflating rubber dinghies. Salvini has since doubled down, imposing a near total blockade on boats bringing rescued migrants and refugees to Italian ports.

Related: Let Them Drown? Italy’s Trump Closes Ports to Refugees

“Look at the new and old tenants of the Interior Ministry,” said Lucano in an interview with Il Manifesto. “They question my having arranged a marriage even though there’s nothing arranged about it, but Minniti’s mass murder of migrants in the Mediterranean, or their deportation back to the torture camps in Libya — that goes unquestioned.”

Minniti justified his war on immigrants as a crusade to head off radical right politicians like Salvini from getting into office. He also has ambitions of his own. Now a candidate for the secretariat of the Democratic Party, Minniti could one day become prime minister.

“My duty is to be close to those who are afraid, to reassure them, to liberate them from fear,” Minniti told the New York Times in an interview about immigration. “I think fear is the crucial element of the next 10 years in democracy, in Italy and all the world.”

When Saving Lives Is a Crime

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For people like Lucano, 2018 has been the year of living dangerously. Humanitarian activists, from the Arizona desert to the Mediterranean, have been surveilled, harassed and, not infrequently, arrested as criminals. Several European governments are increasingly aligned with the Trump administration in targeting people who help migrants and asylum seekers with prosecutions.

At the beginning of the year, nine members of the faith-based group No More Deaths were arrested for leaving jugs of water for migrants crossing the desert on the border with Mexico. On October 21, a judge refused to drop the felony charges against No More Deaths’ Scott Warren, a former geography instructor at Arizona State University. He faces a sentence of up to five years in jail.

On June 20, World Refugee Day, Hungary passed a “Stop Soros” law, making it a crime to help unauthorized migrants, along with a constitutional amendment stating that an “alien population” cannot be settled in the country. The bill is described as “so broadly worded that, in theory, the government could arrest someone who provides food to an undocumented migrant on the street or attends a political rally in favor of their rights.”

In order to close its southern border to migrants — as Trump is now threatening to do in the United States — the EU, led by Italy, is preventing and even criminalizing humanitarian sea rescues. By mid-summer, as reported previously in WhoWhatWhy, rescue operations by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Mediterranean had almost ceased. In September, one in five migrants setting out from North Africa to reach Europe drowned.

Salvini and some other EU leaders claim that it is now up to the Libyan Coast Guard (with boats and equipment provided by the EU) to “rescue” people. In fact, the Libyans are intercepting more and more people at sea (sometimes more than once) and forcing them back to indefinite detention in Libya. Many are beaten, starved, sold into slavery, or tortured by militias until their families pay ransom.

Related: In Libya, EU Supports Returning Migrants to a War Zone

Humanitarian operations in the Mediterranean now depend on a shrinking number of people willing to risk jail for saving people from drowning. Sarah Mardini, one of two Syrian swimmer refugee sisters who saved 18 people from drowning in 2015, is sitting in a high-security Greek prison. After starting a new life in Germany, Mardini went back to Greece to help fellow refugees as a volunteer with the European Response Centre International. She faces charges of people-smuggling, espionage, and membership in a criminal organization.

Sarah Mardini

Sarah Mardini looks out to sea in Lesbos. Photo credit: Achilleas Zavallis / UNHCR

Claus-Peter Reisch, the German captain of the rescue vessel MV Lifeline, is awaiting trial in Malta for entering Maltese waters without permission to save 234 lives in a boat “without proper registration or license.” Reisch says he is “not aware of having committed any crime.” The EU accepts migrant deaths at sea, he says, “for political reasons.” The MV Lifeline was impounded this summer along with two other rescue boats.

Tunisian fishermen had their vessel seized on August 30 and were held in prison for towing a boat of refugees in distress to Italy (they have since been released). One of them, Chamseddine Bourassine, has been rescuing migrants at sea for years and burying the dead when they wash ashore near his home town of Zarzis. He is on a list of rescuers jointly nominated by a group of European citizens for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At a time when Italy and other EU governments are preventing rescues at sea, saving people from drowning has become an act of political dissent. Eleven non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with sea rescue operations — collectively responsible for saving over 100,000 lives in the Mediterranean since 2015 — were shortlisted for the 2018 Sakharov Prize, alongside winner Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is imprisoned in Russia.

The nomination is a grim reminder that nearly 2,000 men, women and children drowned this year trying to reach Europe, over half of them since June 1. Almost none of the NGOs were allowed to put their rescue boats to sea in the crucial summer months of 2018.

Who’s Afraid of Riace?

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Thousands of people in Italy and across Europe are rallying around Riace and the model of integration it represents. “It started with NGOs saving lives at sea. Now it’s the turn of those who do it on land,” wrote the Naples-based anti-racism group Associazione 3 Febbraio in a statement.

A network of towns in Italy is following Riace’s example, using SPRAR funds to house migrants in abandoned homes and to revive local communities. The Italians living there are ready to give migrants and refugees that make it across the Mediterranean a chance at a new life, in defiance of their national government. The reasons are not just humanitarian.

Italian economists say the country needs to integrate immigrants into the workforce. A just-released quantitative analysis shows that Italian municipalities hosting refugees can experience “a sizeable effect on income growth.”

Italy is full of houses without people. Two million have been abandoned by their inhabitants over the course of 25 years. Birth rates in all 28 European Union countries are below replacement rates but Italy is edging fastest towards demographic doom. Italy has the world’s second oldest population, after Japan.

The example of a town saved from extinction by immigrants could not be more unwelcome to Salvini and other members of the far-right Lega Party ruling Italy in a coalition government. Since he came into office on June 1, Salvini has sought to block all refugees (“not one more”) from entering Italy, and he is pushing for the deportation of a half-million people.

African migrants cannot “replace the children we’re not having,” Salvini said, calling them “new slaves” in an argument with other ministers at a September European summit. What Italy needs, he said, is “to help our kids have kids.”

The Italian poet, Erri de Luca, accuses both Minniti and Salvini of “war crimes,” against the Mediterranean boat people who have landed on Italy’s shores or drowned trying to get there. But he acknowledges that fear is the issue. “Italy is a country of old people,” he says, “a country that is trembling and afraid of its own shadow.”

In late summer, a month before his arrest, Lucano went on a hunger strike, demanding the payment of the SPRAR funds that have been frozen for two years. The town of Riace is nearly bankrupt and its workers, shopkeepers, and refugees are living on the edge.

Even if Lucano is allowed to return to Riace, his term as mayor expires in 2019 and he will not be able to stand again. Now an exile, he has issued a declaration of independence, promising an autonomous Riace, supported by crowdfunding, “solidarity” tourism, and the profits from its olive press and artisanal workshops, rather than funds controlled by “an interior minister who has no respect for human rights.”

By a strange fate, Lucano’s little hilltop town at the edge of Europe is an epicenter in the political crisis over how to handle migrants and refugees: whether to welcome at least some of them — under laws created in response to the Holocaust — or raise the drawbridge of “Fortress Europe.”

“How we deal with the migrant question will decide whether Europe continues to exist in the future,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament in July.

The Citta Futura remains under siege. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, came to Riace during Lucano’s hunger strike to show her support:

I’m here to thank Riace for creating an example and giving hope to an aging Europe that is in crisis and politically very weak, a Europe that has to decide if it still believes in the European democratic project, based on human rights, a Europe that was founded to end war and fascism.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from map (Google), Domenico Lucano (Carlo Troiano / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0), and refugees (Ggia / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0).

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