The battles of Riace: A town torn between immigration and emigration
By Ester Driel (Utrecht University)
What can we learn from Riace, a ‘ghost town’ that revived socio-economically by hosting refugees, despite being located in a poor region mainly known for the ‘nDrangetha mafia? Is it possible to revitalize shrinking European areas while also offering a home to refugees? And also, what have been the consequences of the way in which the so-called ‘Riace model’ was dismantled and from the recent sentence against its pro-migration mayor Lucano, convicted to 13 years of prison?
How it all started
In 1998, long before the so-called European ‘refugee crises’, 300 Kurdish refugees landed on Riace’s coast. In the absence of a formal national reception system for refugees that only got established years later, the Kurdish newcomers spontaneously received help from local volunteers. For weeks, youngsters were busy collecting mattresses and warm clothes to keep everyone warm, while the older inhabitants cooked meals to ensure no one went to bed hungry. Temporarily, the refugees were hosted by locals or provided with shelter in the old local sanctuary of San Cosimo and Damiano.
One year after the arrival of this first boat, a group of young locals led by Domenico Lucano, who would later become Riace’s mayor, founded the NGO Città Futura Puglisi, named after a Sicilian priest who was murdered by the mafia. Together with the municipality, they developed an innovative settlement program for refugees, the so-called ‘Riace model’ that combined the reception of refugees with the revival of the local community. Various initiatives were started by local Italians and refugees together, such as the ‘laboratori’ (workshops) to revitalize local ancient crafts, the sustainable agricultural projects, and the restoration of the old town.
A local refugee of Riace working in the ceramics workshop, by now forcedly closed down. Photo by Ester Driel.
The main goal was to create a different socio-economic environment characterized by welcoming refugees and by actively combatting the exploitation and exclusion of migrants, which unfortunately were standard practices in the region. Riace’s refugees also perceived the town as a place where they were received with warmth and hospitality and had the opportunity to pursue a normal and dignified life. Also, their experiences in Riace stood in sharp contrast to the overcrowded asylum centers and to the exploitation and discrimination that they faced elsewhere in Europe:
“I got shot in Catanzaro – it was a hate crime, possibly fueled by the mafia. But after this incident “il sindaco” (the mayor), opened his heart to me, took me into his village and offered me this nice job. I never experienced racism here” (T., male, refugee, construction worker for Città Futura)
The story of Riace led to large international media attention, such as films, documentaries, and academic publications, and in 2016 mayor Lucano even got listed in Fortune magazine as one of the worlds’ 50 greatest leaders. Moreover, many other towns copied the Riace model, which also inspired the foundation of a national system that financially supported such initiatives. But, unfortunately, this success also incited intimidation and violence by people who tried to maintain the old power balance, often affiliated with the ‘Ndrangetha mafia. The last violent attack in Riace took place in 2009 when members of the ‘Ndrangetha attempted to shoot the mayor through the glass door of Riace’s solidarity restaurant, where he was having dinner. Despite such intimidations, the mayor continued running the associations and the program that further expanded until 2018.
From emigration to population growth
Like many other shrinking, rural European regions, Calabria suffered from waves of emigration. Firstly, many people left for America between the Italian unification in 1861 and the Great Depression of the 1930s after World Wars I and II. The emigration peaked again in the 1960s and ‘70s when many moved to Northern Italy during the industrial boom. Due to poverty, a corrupted political system, and the traditional power of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, Calabria remains an undeveloped area with high unemployment and an aging population, pushing the emigration crisis to continue nowadays.
In this context, the Riace-model is exceptional, as it demonstrated that the reception of refugees could turn the tide for a dying town. In only a few years, the local school reopened. Businesses flourished again thanks to refugees who were both customers and employees. The population even grew again from about 1.600 in 2001 to over 2.300 in 2016. In this period, on average, about 400 to 500 refugees resided in Riace. The rest of the population growth was because the new young generation was able to stay in Riace to work in the refugee projects instead of feeling forced to emigrate. For example, a young inhabitant who lived in many countries for work but came back to Riace and worked in a refugee project explained:
“I travelled the world, and realized that Riace really is not a bad, or actually even a very good and special place – compared to other cities. A small town, that serves as an example of hospitality towards migrants, of different ways to create a social and fair economy” (V., male inhabitant, 28)
Interestingly, the changing social climate, the decreasing power of mafia related-forces, and the improved socio-economic conditions in town also inspired older emigrants to come back. One of them (a young social worker) vividly remembered the story of his father who was forced to leave Riace ‘back in the old days, but who by now had safely returned to his family in Riace:
“..back in the days, my father did a “job” for them [referring to the local mafia]. A ‘capo’ (local boss) approached him, because the word was on the street that my father, back then a healthy young man, could be of help with the escape of an important clan member. After this ‘success’, the mafia approached my father again, but he did not want get caught up in that world. Therefore, he joined friends in Northern Europe to find work there, where he stayed for years..”
Is there a future for the ‘Riace-model’?
Despite the success stories above, the tide seems to have turned for Riace. Nowadays, the fight against Riace’s approach seems to have shifted from violent ‘Ndrangheta in the early 2000s to the legal and bureaucratic arena. The appointment of the far-right minister of the interior, Salvini, resulted in Italy’s more restrictive migration and integration policies. The government abolished the scholarship that allowed refugees to work under Decree Law 113/2018 and replaced a national system that financially supported all asylum seekers with a system that merely offers financial support to recognized refugees. Additionally, a legal process – that is considered by many a political process – was started against the pro-migration mayor Domenico Lucano.
On September 30, Riace’s former mayor and current NGO-leader Domenico Lucano was sentenced to over 13 years in prison for abetting illegal migration and for ‘irregularities’ in the management of asylum seekers. In addition, he has to pay a fine of 700.000 euro. An example of the ‘crimes’ of Lucano is that he aimed to help a Nigerian woman, who had been forced into sex work, to marry a local Italian man to prevent her from being exploited. He was sentenced with 25 other locals, such as social workers and project leaders who, in the midst of Europe’s refugee crises, gave all their time and energy to help the many refugees that were sent to Riace by the Prefect, often on a voluntary base due to the delay of public funding.
At the 60th anniversary of the famous ‘Peace Walk’ from Perugia to Assisi on October 10, 2021, many people took banners to express their solidarity with Domenico Lucano. Photos by Gianluca Palma.
This sentence was received with much upheaval and sparked protests in cities across Italy, as it was twice as long as requested by the prosecutors and because other criminals that include murderers received lower sentences, such as the man who beat the young Nigerian Emmanuel Chidi Namdi to death in 2018 and got only four years of house arrest. Moreover, the supreme court of cassation, the highest court of appeal in Italy, previously dismissed all the charges in a 2018 case against Lucano by the Guardia di Finanzia, and even referred to them as “crimes committed for morally appreciable purposes”.
Though this previous decision by the highest court of appeal makes some Italian experts hopeful about the appeal of the current sentence, the damage to Riace’s reception program has already been done. The town is rapidly on its way to change from being a village of immigration and an example of hospitality to becoming a ghost town once again. The number of refugees has dropped significantly, and local Italians who worked in the refugee projects have lost their jobs and emigrated to search for work elsewhere. As a result, the total number of inhabitants in the municipality declined from 2,313 in 2017 to 1,869 in 2021.
However, what gives hope is that the socio-economic revitalization of Riace and similar towns has inspired an increasing number of other shrinking European communities to initiate programs for refugees. The social composition of these shrinking communities is often quite similar to Riace, and they struggle with similar challenges. Therefore the lessons learned in the development of the Riace-model can give them crucial guidance. For now, let’s hope that we continue to remember and live the values which the people of Riace taught to the world. The Riace-model showed us that hospitality and solidarity towards those in need and sustainable local development can go hand in hand and that migration is not a threat to “fortress Europe”.
 Borzomati, P. (1982). L’Emigrazione calabrese dall’Unità ad oggi: atti del II Convegno di studio della Deputazione di Storia Patria per la Calabria, Polistena 6-7, Rogliano 8 dicembre 1980. Centro studi emigrazione.