The Riace model and the Domenico Lucano case. Is another world possible?

By Alice Lomonaco (Bologna University)

On 30 September 2021, the Court of Locri sentenced former Mayor of Riace Domenica Lucano to 13 years and two months in prison. The judges accused him of criminal association aimed at aiding and abetting irregular immigration, abuse of office, fraud, extortion, embezzlement, bid-rigging, and ideological falsification. In addition, he will have to return €500,000 of European funds.

The severity of this sentencehas been described as unexpected and unusual (A. Camilli, Internazionale, 8th October 2021). The Court of Locri doubled the penalty requested by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, accusing Lucano of being the head of a criminal association for the purpose of aggravated fraud and embezzlement – that is, using funds allocated for the reception of migrants for other purposes.

Domenico Lucano was Mayor of Riace (Reggio Calabria) from 2004 to 2018 (until he was suspended) and had become known internationally for his pro-migrant reception position. The Riace model was based on a vision of an alternative and welcoming society in which everyone, regardless of origin, language or culture, participates in the life of a community in order to find their place, as he recalls in his book Il fuorilegge (2020).

Riace, June 2021

Like many other municipalities in Calabria and southern Italy, Riace has been marked by a strong emigration of its inhabitants, who after World War II left one of the poorest areas in Europe in search of new life opportunities in northern Italy and abroad. In 1951 the population of Riace was 2,331, but depopulation continued inexorably until the 1980s, when 1,668 residents remained. To fight the depopulation of Riace and deal with global migration, Mayor Lucano opted for an integration of migrants into the life of the village, leading to a considerable increase in the population (from 1,610 in 2001 to 1,869 in 2021, with a peak of 2,345 residents in 2016). Through the recovery of uninhabited houses, renovation of infrastructure, and investment in local crafts, the local economy was rehabilitated. This also made it possible to support the education and training of migrants, demonstrating that “another world is possible”.

The Riace model had been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), attracting international interest and inspiring numerous reception projects in Italy and abroad. Lucano’s work paved an different path to the depopulation of villages, imagining an alternative for a region that is a “land of consumption” (il Manifesto, 3rd October 2021) and typically dependent on the economic growth of central and northern regions.

The Riace model was a symbol of redemption of the margins. First, territorial margins of a region like Calabria, which paid for its entry into modernity by providing cheap arms for industrial development in the North Italy and Europe. Second, human margins – as migrants are often considered –  creating alliances and development projects for a solidarity-centred, sustainable, and innovative renaissance.

Lucano’s legal troubles began in 2008, when he was placed under house arrest and suspended from his position as mayor. Two weeks later, the Court of Reexamination of Reggio Calabria banned him from staying in Riace, as an alternative to house arrest. The Riace reception project was closed a month after Lucano’s arrest, although the Council of State later ruled in favour of the appeal filed by the Mayor. The Council defined the closure of the reception center as illegitimate and the behaviour of the Ministry of the Interior as ‘hostile’ towards Lucano, having dismantled a project that he had supported and financed until a few months earlier.

In 2019, Lucano was indicted, as the Public Prosecutor’s Office accused him of arranging a marriage of convenience. At the basis of the accusation is a telephone conversation in which Lucano talks about the possibility of obtaining citizenship for a woman who had been denied asylum three times, by marrying a Riace inhabitant. The Public Prosecutor’s Office also accused him of illegally assigning waste collection services, between 2012 and 2016, to two cooperatives – which employed migrants – that were not registered in the regional register (as required by law), and without inviting tenders . The Court, in fact, had found no evidence of “fraudulent behaviour” by the former Mayor in awarding services to those cooperatives.

Lucano was then also accused of fraud because some migrants lived in apartments that weren’t certified as “habitable”. In 2019, he received a further notice of indictment for issuing identity documents to an Eritrean woman and her infant son who weren’t in possession of a residence permit. As Lucano told us during an interview in Riace in June 2021, it was part of his idea of integration, a political idea of reception. In his words: ‘But they were the ones who called me, they were the ones who asked me to take in so many people, humans, because they had nowhere to put them… and I took them in… I committed a crime of humanity’.

Lucano’s “outlawed” actions were consciously carried out in contravention of laws that he considered unjust and detrimental to the rights of immigrants and inhabitants of Riace. These actions did not give provide him with any personal or political benefit. Lucano’s legal sentence also seems to be a vicious attack on a project that has successfully shown the potential of regenerating shrinking areas by establishing welcoming spaces.