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Italy’s government targets town known for taking in migrants

For 20 years, the small Italian town of Riace has been a beacon for several thousand immigrants from around the world. But Italy's new populist government has recently lodged charges against the town's longtime mayor for aiding illegal migration, and is cutting off funds to refugees who have bolstered Riace's population. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the last 20 years, the tiny Italian town of Riace has become a symbol of how Europeans welcome and integrate migrants. It also gained international attention for its mayor, Domenico Lucano, who won plaudits from the Pope, and was named by fortune magazine one of the "World's Greatest Leaders."

    But Italy's new, populist government has a different view of Lucano, and many of Riace's new residents now face an uncertain future. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Rome.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    When we first visited Riace, a small hilltop town in Italy's southern region of Calabria back in 2016, Mayor Domenico Lucano was proud to show us how many migrants were living and working there.

  • Woman:

    Hey bon giorno.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Including people like Daniel Yaboah, originally from Ghana. A familiar face here in Riace, Yaboah went house to house collecting trash and recyclables along with his "trusty donkey." He'd fled death threats in Ghana, he says, after his wife converted for him from Islam to Christianity, and had been been living in Riace for seven-and-a-half years.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    You have a life here?

  • Daniel Yaboah:

    Yes, of course. We have a life here, and the people here give us a chance to feel like home, you know. They are friendly, used to foreigners, they are used to welcome everybody here. I'm very happy I'm here now.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Riace was not only good to refugees, the refugees had proved good for Riace.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    What would the town be like without refugees right now?

  • Domenico Lucano:

    Simply put, Riace would no longer exist.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    That's because by the 1990's Riace was suffering the fate of so many small villages in Europe. Its population had dropped almost in half as young people moved away to find jobs in cities and left behind empty houses and shuttered businesses. Then in 1998 a boat came ashore with 200 Kurdish refugees. Rather than seeing them as a threat Mayor Lucano saw them as the town's future. He found homes and jobs for many of them. It was the beginning of a welcome policy that lasted even through the recent refugee crisis. By 2016 about 400 of the town's 18-hundred residents were non-Italians from more than 20 different countries. Mayor Lucano developed a program that collected the 30 dollars a day each refugee receives from the government and pooled into a fund to renovate formerly abandoned homes for refugees to live in.

  • Domenico Lucano:

    Even if you're here by yourself, you get your own house. Because this is the strategy that we launched from the beginning. The whole town is a migrant center.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    The fund also helped migrants start new businesses and paid them a monthly stipend. Riace was growing again, even becoming something of a tourist attraction. But after our first report, it emerged that the Mayor was under police investigation and today, the Riace experiment faces extinction. And at least for now Domenico Lucano is no longer Mayor of Riace. Lucano was briefly put under house arrest in October. When released, he was ordered to keep out of Riace. Banishment is an unusually harsh tactic for someone like Lucano. It's commonly used by Italian courts against the Mafia.

  • Domenico Lucano:

    I've been suspended from my role as mayor, and forbidden to enter Riace, until these legal questions are cleared up.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    The investigation is ongoing, but there are already a number of charges, according to Stefano Candiani, an Undersecretary of the Italian Interior Ministry.

  • Stefano Candiani:

    The charges against the mayor of Riace are charges from the judiciary following a lengthy investigation in which they essentially uncovered widespread government mismanagement, improper management of public funds. The charges include fake marriages, marriages meant to facilitate the right to remain in Italy.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    He's accused of facilitating sham marriages. Is there proof against that?

  • Stefano Candiani:

    Look, you can't ask me for proof. There's a judicial process at work.

  • Domenico Lucano:

    Facilitating illegal immigration, sounds to me like, I don't know what. Obviously I've been through some hard times and bitterness. They're accusing me of felonies.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Did you break the law?

  • Domenico Lucano:

    I'd like to respond by asking a question: Weren't there laws in Nazi Germany, during the Third Reich? They produced a humanitarian nightmare. People who are fleeing war. From trauma, misery, poverty. I tried simply to offer some sensitivity. And that turned into an extraordinary opportunity for a town like Riace.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    There is a divide in Italy over the issue of immigration. The country's populist government, which took power last year, recently passed sweeping legislation making it much harder for asylum seekers to get residency. The left-wing opposition, meanwhile, says the laws effectively criminalize a whole group of migrants by denying them a place to live and work. In this political environment, Lucano has become a hero of the left, the star speaker at this rally in Rome.

  • Domenico Lucano:

    It's right that today I'm here among you, keep on dreaming about the existence of a different dimension for humanity.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Lucano's supporters have called the actions taken against him politically motivated. Italy's anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has made no secret of his disdain for the mayor of Riace. In fact, if you want an idea, just go to Twitter and see what he's posting. Here he is gloating over the arrest of mayor Lucano. He says 'Oh my, I can't wait to hear what the do-gooders will have to say about this, the ones who want to fill Italy with migrants.'

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Is the government of Matteo Salvini trying to make an example out of the mayor of Riace?

  • Stefano Candiani:

    That's very curious. Because the investigations surrounding Riace were launched long before this administration took office. The investigations into the management of public funds were launched in 2016. The conclusions are coming in now.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    While Lucano awaits trial, Riace is already paying the price. The central government has cut off funding for the town's refugee program, leaving hundreds with no money for food and rent.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Could we expect to see migrants forcibly removed from Riace?

  • Stefano Candiani:

    If you're here with proper papers, you can stay. When they expire, either you leave, or you get kicked out of the country. These are the rules of coexistence. We can't host all the people who want to come here simply because it's easy, looks nice, and pleasant. It comes with costs, at the expense of Italians.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    What is next for the city of Riace?

  • Domenico Lucano:

    The arrival of refugees helped bring Riace back to life. That's all I know. For 20 years, since that boat washed up in Riace, one way or another we changed the fate of this little town. I hope that Riace manages to become a land of welcome once again.

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