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The southern Italian town of Riace was once a beacon for immigrants from around the world, but three years after NewsHour Weekend first reported on how it had welcomed immigrants, a political shift has turned it into a relative ghost town. The change took place when a political party known for its anti-immigration stance swept into power. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
In Italy, a new movement has emerged in opposition to former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini's far-right populism. It's called the Sardines Movement –because of their capacity to pack themselves into piazzas
Yesterday tens of thousands turned out to protest Salvini's populist politics and anti-migrant language.
But in some places, his rhetoric has taken hold. Early this year we brought you a story from the Italian town of Riace, which gained a reputation for welcoming migrants until a new, populist government brought that experiment to an end.
Now, Italy has changed governments again, and NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay has an update to our story.
Tucked up in the hills along Italy's southern coast is a small town with a big reputation. We first visited Riace in 2016. It had become famous during the height of the immigation crisis in Europe for welcoming migrants and refugees, with a smile.
"Poco, poco. Little, little Italiano…."
The mayor at the time, Domenico Lucano, proudly introduced us to some of them, like this woman from Afghanistan. The town provided refugees like her with work in speciality shops, training in small workshops, and other jobs around town.
It housed them in formerly abandoned apartments in an innovative program mostly paid for with government funds. Mayor Lucano was even named one of Fortune Magazine's 50 greatest world leaders for his integration policies. The many refugees and migrants we met like Daniel Yaboah who's originally from Ghana and had a job collecting trash and recyclables, said they were grateful to the people of Riace.
They are friendly or those things and they are used to foreigners. They are used to welcome everybody. Very happy I'm here now.
But returning three years later, we found a very different scene in Riace.
I think this was one of the workshops where they were working in wool? It's closed.
The once busy so-called "Global Village" which was the heart of the immigrant area is now more like a ghost town. The specialty shops and workshops that had employed and trained migrants are all closed. Most of the migrants are gone too.
As you can see it's not like before.
Daniel Yaboah is one of the few still left.
It's not a good thing, no. I'm just feeling bad for the, my colleagues, my friends. You know. For me you know I've been here the past 10 years, so for me, it's not a problem for me, but I'm just feeling, I'm feeling pity for the, my colleagues.
What happened? A political sea-change. A once fringe party called The League, which has a blunt Italians-first, anti-immigration message won in local elections this past spring. Claudio Falchi, The League's leader here at the time, credits the victory to a major backlash against the migrant program in once left-leaning Riace.
Against the will of the town, we were invaded by a myriad of nationalities, people coming from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, that is from countries where there aren't any wars. Economic migrants. Citizens here felt abandoned.
At a local cafe people told us they felt overwhelmed by the number of migrants.
That's an invasion. Because of the numbers, even if you ask the left, "how many migrants do we have to host?" They don't tell you how many. Are we supposed to get all of Africa?
Riace also elected a new mayor, League-backed Antonio Trifoli. He replaced Lucano who's being investigated for mismanagement of the refugee program funds, charges Lucano's supporters say are politically motivated. With Lucano gone, the refugee program collapsed and the migrants moved away according to the new mayor.
I think an integration project for migrants makes sense, but only with a limited number. At times we had 500 to 600 migrants here.
Now how many migrants are here?
Now there are only a few families, those who were truly able to integrate. 10-20 families, let's say about 50 migrants.
If there used to be 600 migrants and now there's only 50, where did all the migrants go?
They went to other migrant centers in Italy. Some went to France. A lot of them left on their own. Or they had to leave because of the investigation, and the interior ministry closed the non-profit that was running their project. As soon as the public money stopped coming in, these workshops closed. And national politics changed in Italy too.
Riace may be an isolated village, but what's happening here is not an isolated event. The League party, is now the most powerful party in the country and it's leading a movement across Europe.
The League's leader is Matteo Salvini. Up until recently he was also Deputy Prime Minister. He lost that position recently, but he and his party are still the most popular in the country, polling at more than 30% and Savlini has his eye on a comeback. The League recently won in Umbria, yet another historically left-wing region in Central Italy. Roberto Menotti with the Aspen Institute Italia says the League has successfully capitalized on the issue that's kept Europe in knots in recent years, migration, making a dramatic promise to voters about the flow of migrants into the country.
The argument in previous governments, center-left governments especially was we will manage the phenomenon for you. We cannot stop the flow. Now Salvini is actually sending a different message. We will actually try to stop the flow which in the past essentially no government really even tried to make as an argument.
Menotti says the League's slogan, "Italians First" is of the kind that may sound familiar to Americans.
And of course, it has a Trumpian ring to it. So a feeling that you have to make sure that most of your national resources actually go to your own citizens first. So that feeling is very widespread and certainly the League has been exploiting that politically.
Menotti notes there's another thing that Salvini has in common with President Trump.
He tweets a lot. He also is a great fan of selfies. So he's extremely savvy in terms of social media.
Nathalie Tocci is deputy director International Affairs Institute.
He does not necessarily want people to like him. The point is being talked about. This is very much the tactic that naitonalist populist leaders use across the west. They make the news.
And Salvini's greater ambitions became evident at a large rally in Milan earlier this year. He addressed a cheering crowd, kissing a crucifix and introducing some of Europe's biggest far-right leaders.
No more dictates from the EU superstate.
They included the Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
No more immigation. Basta Islam!
And France's far-right party leader, Marine Le Pen.
We're taking this revolution of good sense to all of Europe, she told the crowd.
The key message was the League is not only very successful at a national level, it is also a European force with the ability to actually use this general movement to the right across the continent as a new political tool.
But there are limits to how influential one nationalist party can be. according to Tocci.
The point about nationalists is precisely that that they are nationalists. So they tend to not agree with one another. They may like each other politically but they are completely unable to cooperate and help each other on a policy level.
Whether the right-wing will manage to unite is unclear. But it's already having an impact on people like Yaboah in places like Riace.
For me, it's not a good thing. For the city too, you can see everywhere is quiet.
And Menotti says the trend will continue for some time to come.
The reasons why a party like the League and a leader like Salvini can become very popular very quickly are there to stay and they have to do with globalization, with the impact of economic inequalities and so on. All issues that are more or less felt in the same way in the United States just as in Europe. So there are reasons to keep watching what happens in places like Italy.
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Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
Alessandro Pavone is a freelance videographer and producer.
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