Welcoming Refugees in Riace

by LIRAN MORAV | University of Cambridge, PhD student, Sociology
Mayor of Riace Domenico Lucano sat down with the CAMMIGRES Forum Blog shortly after he spoke at a lecture hosted by the Cambridge Migration Society. This post is based on both his lecture and the subsequent interview.

Italy’s picturesque Calabria region sits on the crossroad of two crises: On the one hand, its shores serve as landing sites for thousands of refugees seeking a new life in Europe. On the other hand, Calabria has been suffering three decades of severe demographic decline, with most of its young population having left the region in search of employment in Italy’s prosperous North. The European recession has only made this crisis worse.

Riace, a Calabrian village situated on the tip of Italy’s boot, is a case in point: “We have seen our population drop from 5000 to 500 in just a few decades,” says Domenico Lucano, the village’s mayor.

Mr. Lucano is not just any small-village mayor. He’s a social entrepreneur of the most extraordinary kind —in 2016 he was chosen by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 100 “Greatest Leaders”. His achievement: pioneering the “Riace Model” of refugee integration.

The idea behind this model is simple. Rather than tolerating refugees and setting them up in temporary warehouses while their asylum claims are processed, Riace welcomes refugees in and asks them to stay, providing them with occupation, schooling, and free accommodation in the centre of the village. Each refugee is integrated into Riace’s social fabric.

Last December, the Cambridge Migration Society hosted Mr. Lucano in Cambridge for a public talk, where he shared his story.

Mayor Lucano speaks at “Refugees Welcome: The ‘Riace Model’ and Its Mayor”, hosted by the Cambridge Migration Society. Also pictured: Dr Anna Bagnoli, Sociology (left) and interpreter Giulia Boitani, Modern and Medieval Languages (right). (Photo by Liran Morav)

Riace is currently a village numbering 1800 residents, of which one quarter are refugees from over twenty different nationalities. “Riace was a village stuck in the past,” says Mr. Lucano, “but the refugees from Africa have ushered in a renaissance of our village community. The village rose from the ashes.”

Indeed, Riace’s refugees are deeply involved in its social and economic life. They work in the village’s workshops helping local craftmakers. They are also involved in the local tourism industry and work with local farmers. Mr. Lucano highlights that the refugees in Riace are all paid fair wages. He refuses to take part in the abusive exploitation of immigrant seen in neighbouring villages with labour shortages. “These kind of practices only perpetuate the rift between locals and refugees.”

“The refugees from Africa have ushered in a renaissance of our village community. The village rose from the ashes.”

Riace’s refugees are members of the community. They forge lasting friendships with the village’s inhabitants. “Twenty days ago we saw the first marriage between a local woman from Riace and an African refugee,” Mr. Lucano announces proudly.

Meanwhile, the children of the refugees learn to read and write in the local school. Mr. Lucano is thankful to the refugees for making it possible to keep Riace’s school open. “There’s finally teachers again in Riace and children running down the city streets. They symbolize the hope for the future that the refugees brought with them.”

Overcoming Challenges

Mr. Lucano appears surprised when asked whether the presence of ethnic “others” in his village creates tensions.

“Of course there are the usual tensions between people during the course of day to day interactions. To disagree is a normal part of social life. But that does not mean we close ourselves off. Closure is something that reduces life. It is a poisoned solution to the arrival of refugees and a syndrome of a hating humanity.”

In fact, Mr. Lucano’s open-arm policy to refugees encountered its most enduring difficulties among Italy’s administrative authorities.

“What you have to understand is that I’ve been welcoming refugees and integrating them into Riace with no money! There is no integration policy in Italy, nor any form of assistance to local authorities that take in refugees. The Italian state is more than comfortable with this situation. It does not want to give refugees the possibility of a future in Italy, especially not in Southern Italy. Some refugees decide to stay in Riace thanks to our unique integration model, though most of them consider Italy a transit point. I’m convinced that with adequate financial assistance from the central government we could have accommodated 50,000 refugees in Riace, not just 500.”

Mr. Lucano’s integration model aroused its fair share of suspicion in the corridors of Italy’s central government. Calabria’s regional prefecture initially refused to issue IDs for Riace’s refugees, and Mr. Lucano himself has already been summoned to Rome to defend his integration policies.

Mayor Lucano speaks with Cambridge students after his talk. (Photo by Liran Morav)

An Odyssean Refuge

Riace’s story is not a simple case of “going with the flow”. Mr Lucano’s approach to integration is firmly rooted in a worldview formed during his days as a student in Rome.

“I grew up in Southern Italy, where community relations were very important, where human relations were key. In Rome I felt the marked absence of this feeling. I felt there was no contact between people. Though I was studying in Italy’s capital city, I found myself idealizing Calabrian community life. When I finished my studies I returned to Calabria with a few friends. We resolved to champion a human politics focused on community relations. In the 1980s, such ideas were associated with radical left-wing thinking. That is understandable, given that Italy had just experienced a wave of terrorist attacks by the radical ‘Red Brigade’ factions.”

Mr. Lucano’s lucky break came in 1998, when a boat full of Kurdish asylum-seekers landed at a nearby shore. The event triggered the beginning of his integration experiment.

“In 1998, Riace had already experienced severe decline. What community had formerly existed was no longer there. The population was old, and the streets empty. With so many of Riace’s population gone I realized I could easily house the Kurdish refugees in the abandoned houses in the village’s historical centre. It wasn’t hard to convince the owners. No one was waiting in line to rent those properties. The houses had been empty for some 50 years.”

Six years later, Mr. Lucano was elected Riace’s mayor. Soon after, the village adopted an authentic “refugees welcome” policy. A comprehensive set of residential and occupational measures were put in place to ensure that asylum-seekers could become part of the village community. “Before, Riace was dead. As we began welcoming refugees and making them a normal part of the community, the village sprung to life. The crooked web of streets in the centre became a community network.”

“I’m convinced that with adequate financial assistance from the central government we could have accommodated 50,000 refugees in Riace, not just 500.”

Today, Riace’s integration model is being studied by policymakers, film-makers, and journalists from all over Europe. In spite of his fame, Mr. Lucano rejects the notion that he did anything special. “All I did was to open Riace’s doors and treat refugees the way we treat each other. I never imagined that this simple act would draw so much attention.”

Mr Lucano is confident that other villages and cities could integrate refugees just as easily.

“It is said that Odysseus found refuge in Calabria during his perilous Mediterranean journey. What was possible then is just as attainable now. What I wanted to show through my example is that change is possible. Integration in not difficult. We did it with no money and no help. My contribution was but a small step —and hopefully not a final one.”

*       *       *

The CAMMIGRES Forum Blog would like to thank Mayor Lucano for his time and generosity.

Cover image by Michele Borzoni, TerraProject/Contrasto.

Liran Morav is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and an editor at the CAMMIGRES Forum Blog. His research focuses on the integration of Jewish immigrants in France and Britain after the Second World War. Liran previously worked as Political Advisor in Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and OSCE. His work included bringing together government and intergovernmental actors to share expertise and organise trainings in the fields of human trafficking prevention and migrant integration. Prior to that, Liran completed a BA in Politics, Psychology, and Sociology and an MPhil in Sociology at Cambridge. 

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