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Divided by migration, this tiny Italian community turned into a ghost town

Divided by migration, this tiny Italian community turned into a ghost town

by host
Divided by migration, this tiny Italian community turned into a ghost town

RIACE, Italy — For the better part of two decades, a town spanning bone-dry hills and a desolate coastline was the testing ground for a contentious experiment that saw hundreds of refugees settled in its historic center to bring it back to life.

In Riace’s crumbling old center, at the top of a windswept ridge, residents long for new faces like the hundreds from Syria, Eritrea, and Nigeria who once inhabited the so-called Global Village set up by their former mayor.

Now, little life remains save for the requisite tracksuit-wearing village elders, who lounge in the same spot every day in the same cafe, laid out on plastic chairs in the shade of a terracotta awning. There they sit and smoke as the days wear on, blowing long plumes out over the foothills, sloshing down bottles of Dreher lager, and rehashing decades-old personal enmities.

At the height of Riace’s international welcome, some estimate nearly half of the town’s residents were migrants. Most of those seeking refuge have moved on in recent years and only a handful remain. 

Seven kilometers away on the coastline, the situation is no less bleak — but the views of Marina residents couldn’t be further from their neighbors. While mild prosperity took hold on the hill for migrants and locals alike, it wasn’t shared by residents of the ramshackle Marina, who believed state funds had been diverted for asylum seekers at their expense. A right-wing backlash ensued, the mayor behind the experiment was arrested, and the town’s hopes, briefly buoyed by the surge of new arrivals, faded anew.

Deep in the scrub of southern Calabria, the divisions over immigration are as geographical as they are political. 

“Migration has been weaponized, to achieve a political consensus,” sighed one polo-wearing old-timer on a recent lifeless morning, his face deeply lined and bronzed by the southern sun. He declined to give his name, not wanting to risk personally alienating a good chunk of Riace’s 2,000-strong population. A second man with a bright red face and thick white mullet, equally nervous about his reputation, scoffed: “It was like an invasion, and still only 22 of them are here legally!”

As with many of the locals POLITICO spoke to, the two residents asked to remain anonymous, fearing local backlash. 

Then-Mayor Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano began what he called his “Global Village” in 2004, deploying state funds to house, feed and employ hundreds of migrants. | Ben Munster/POLITICO

In 2018, shortly after the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, judges in Italy put then-Mayor Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano under house arrest for embezzling public funds and facilitating illegal migration. Then right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ordered the town’s migrants to be relocated.

The polarization in the tiny town between these two distinct communities, geographically separated but bound to the same political fate, is the story of a beleaguered Europe. While few places are as near to Europe’s migration conversation as Riace, divisions over the matter continue to roil communities in places as far away as Belgium, the Netherlands, and France — and are expected to deliver huge gains for a rising right.

Ahead of the European election on June 6, in Riace these old tensions are sharper than ever. 

After judges in Italy overturned charges and a prison sentence after Lucano appealed, the former mayor is preparing a dramatic return from exile. Lucano is running for both the European Parliament and local elections taking place on the same day in June. 

Now Lucano, the closest thing the Italian left has to an international celebrity, seeks to not only retake the town hall and revive his asylum project, but export his ideals across the continent.

As Riace gears up for twin elections that will test small-town tensions and pit Lucano against an old-schoolmate-turned-political rival, the town, symbolically and quite literally, illustrates the trade-off voters are being asked to make between increased migration and the risk of further stagnation and decline.

Up on the hill

“It was purely reactionary,” said the polo-wearing porch-sitter at the cafe, adding the decision to kill the asylum scheme had further effects downstream. “They were going to build a hospital — but not anymore,” he reflected, arguing the politics of anti-immigration ultimately betrayed those suffering most amid Italy’s slow-motion demographic collapse. 

Like many progressives in Italy, he saw Brussels as the new ground zero for an intolerant politics that was once confined to the radical fringes, but is now defining the bloc’s agenda thanks in large part to the canny calculations of Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. 

The premier has increasingly criminalized migrants and those seeking to help them. She has also helped bring about a rightward shift on the issue in Brussels with the support of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

As a result, voting is now an existential concern for many Italians: for this reason, turnout in the typically apathy-inducing European election is expected to rise all over the country.

That’s especially true in Riace. “When he was around, there were people, there was work,” said another resident, a 30-something lumberjack, pounding through the town’s suburbs in a battered Fiat Punto.

The loss is most keenly felt by the migrants themselves, whose numbers have dwindled from around 500 at their peak to around 30, many of them sustained by charitable donations.

Daniel Yaboah, originally from Ghana, settled in the town in 2009 with the help of Lucano, having braved the Mediterranean to flee Libya as the country spiraled into bloody civil war. At first he was able to eke out a living by riding a donkey around town collecting trash. He has since upgraded to a miniature garbage truck and is one of Riace’s three garbage men. 

Even more than others, Yaboah, 42, would love to vote for the former mayor at both the local and European level. The issue is that after 15 years in Italy, he is still not an Italian citizen, thanks to what he describes as the country’s ever harsher and more confusing immigration laws. 

To him, the solution is clear. “After five years without Mimmo as mayor, the people have understood the difficulties facing this town,” he said. “The lion’s share of people now understand that only he can save it.”

Decades of decline have left little life here save for the requisite village elders. | Ben Munster/POLITICO

Lucano began what he called his “Global Village” in 2004, deploying state funds to house, feed and employ hundreds of migrants in a specially reserved neighborhood that he adorned with colorful murals. In 2018, the project, while internationally feted, lost its sheen and was dismantled under Lucano’s successor after he was arrested on charges of embezzling public funds and facilitating illegal migration. But in a second dramatic turnaround late last year, most of the charges were dropped, and Lucano’s fresh bid as mayor, and as an MEP for Italy’s Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra, represents a return from the political void after five years of isolation and grueling legal troubles. 

For Lucano’s supporters, his dual candidacy — permitted for mayors of towns with populations under 15,000 — is a chance to at once register a symbolic vote against anti-immigration at the European level and a more urgent one locally. Having benefited from the Global Village, they were bemused at the decision to jettison what they viewed as their home’s one hope of survival.

“It’s very important what happens on 6 June,” agreed Lucano, now 65, in an interview in early May, sitting at a desk in his Riace electoral headquarters, which also serves as a schoolhouse and home for some of the few migrants that have remained in the town. He, like others, described both the local and EU-wide elections as an opportunity to oust the right-wing, anti-immigration forces spreading across Europe.

“Immigration was not the problem but the solution to our problems: the lack of work, the mafia, the resignation,” he said. “Try and imagine what happens when everyone goes away. You get a town full of the elderly, sitting, waiting, never doing anything. They close the pharmacy, the school, the kindergarten. There’s no social life, there’s no sport, there’s no theater, there’s no music. Thus begins depression, an illness, a void that sends us to sleep. But we are human beings. We have a social dimension. There is prison — and there is liberty.”

‘Impossible to sustain’

There is another side to the story of Riace, and it is separated from the town proper by a few kilometers of broken road hewn through a rocky outcrop covered in dense maquis. 

At the end of this route you will find the town’s coastal suburb, Riace Marina, where the public transport is so poor that POLITICO had to hitch a lift with Antonio Triffoli, Mimmo’s successor, former collaborator and main electoral rival, just to make the crossing without having to walk for two hours through the blazing heat.

The color-drained Marina is a mix of decrepit concrete shacks and stately beachside villas stretching across several kilometers of desperately untouched coastline, a place where the peak of midweek nightlife is a flickering condom vending machine outside the defunct central station. 

Unlike Riace “Superiore” in the hills, the Global Village project scarcely took hold here, and the residents are overwhelmingly Italian citizens. It is they who form the electoral base for Triffoli, the incumbent, and a good number of them want to keep him there. 

The people here saw little of the migrant project — and what they saw, they didn’t like. “His intentions were good, but it became a business, and degenerated,” said bartender Anna, tending to breakfast alone in an opulent and empty seaside resort. Withholding her last name to protect her reputation she said, Anna explained that she had no problem with migrants per se, but believed that the Global Village had overshadowed Riace’s rich history, illustrated most famously by the “Riace bronzes,” two beautifully preserved ancient Greek bronzes found off the town’s shores in 1972.

“He forgot about our legacy,” she said, wondering why mainstream media kept blasting views like hers as far-right.

 “I hope he’s not elected, so he doesn’t do damage at the European level, too,” agreed Paolo Collucio, a diminutive pensioner with bright blue eyes. “I’m not racist — you can be black, white, or yellow, I don’t care. But he took all of those funds and did nothing — from morning to evening.”

Local and EU-wide elections are an opportunity to oust the right-wing, anti-immigration forces spreading across Europe. | Ben Munster/POLITICO

For the most part, these residents will be voting for the current mayor, Triffoli, who succeeded Lucano almost immediately after the latter was charged in 2018. Over the past five years, Triffoli has largely abandoned the idea of repopulating the town with migrants, and has overseen its decline to a handful of people. Ironically, or tragically, Triffoli was a schoolmate of Lucano’s and claims to have helped set up the Global Village in 2004. “It was a beautiful idea, but it was impossible to sustain,” he said. “There was a period in which there were 500 new people — and we are 2,000 overall.” 

Instead, his platform, if you can call it that at this scale, focuses on concerns that he describes as less “ideological” than those championed at the EU level. 

Unlike Lucano’s supporters, Triffoli’s supporters largely dismiss the EU (and by implication the June 6  European election) and still, the practical concerns he champions depend almost entirely on funding from the European Commission.

Indeed, the best way to boost Riace’s economy, he said, is to make use of money from the EU’s post-pandemic Next Generation EU fund, a portion of which he has earmarked for a series of Brussels-approved improvements to the town’s tourist infrastructure and digital services. 

He described plans to introduce, among other things, co-working spaces, a minibus, and cultural events that emphasize the town’s history. “It needs an essentially touristic development,” he said. 

But at least for those old regulars at the cafe back on the hilltop of Riace Superiore, where the long days wear on, there is still a better way forward. “There was life, and joy, and commerce,” one old-timer said wistfully of the Lucano era, chomping on a seemingly endless cigarette as a cool sea breeze blew in from the distant Marina. 

“A town full of foreigners,” he said, “is better than one that’s dead.”

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