In Italy, a Mayor Who Stood Up for Refugees Faces 13 Years in Jail

Mimmo Lucano made the southern Italian town of Riace into a model of refugee integration — only to become the target of politically motivated criminal charges. His legal appeal, launched this week, will decide if he has to spend 13 years behind bars.

Demonstrators display a photo of Mimmo Lucano as they protest against his sentence of thirteen years in prison for helping immigrants. (Stefano Montesi / Corbis via Getty Images)

On Monday March 21, lawyers for Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, former mayor of the small Italian town of Riace, lodged a final appeal against his sentence handed down last October. The date of the verdict remains unclear, but if the appeal fails, Lucano faces thirteen years behind bars. The local politician’s demise from Fortune’s list of the world’s fifty greatest leaders to spending the last year under house arrest is another battle in the Italian right’s long war on immigrants and progressives. It’s a grim irony that the week Italy welcomes Ukrainian children, to international acclaim, has also seen one of the architects of such integration policies in a battle for his freedom.

Like many rural Italian climes, Riace once faced terminal decline. Emigration and declining birth rates across the country have depopulated the countryside, causing many towns to develop schemes involving selling homes at a nominal €1 to foreigners who agree to settle there. Riace, in the southern Calabria region, took a much less gimmicky approach, embarking on a bold plan to renew its fortunes through resettling thousands of refugees. It is not the only Italian community to adopt such a strategy — Sutera in Sicily is another recent example — but it is the most long-established and internationally renowned.

The town first hosted Kurdish refugees in the 1990s. According to Lucano, one of the refugees at the time said that the region reminded him of Kurdistan and he wanted to stay. “That’s when I spoke to the bishop, who told me it was prophetic intuition,” Lucano told Progressive International in a wide-ranging interview. “I realized that the bishop and I shared a vision and beliefs in terms of social equality and fraternity.” Riace continued to provide housing, health care, and opportunities to people seeking safety, and Lucano was elected mayor three times.

Work programs saw the town refurbished and revitalized, and the emergence of small craft industries, including a weaving business run by Afghans that mixed traditional Italian and Afghan techniques. The town followed in the footsteps of many others in creating a local currency to boost its economy. Meanwhile, Lucano’s administration granted €200 direct cash transfers to refugees, giving them economic freedom as opposed to the restrictive meal vouchers they were used to. “These projects cannot be limited to the initial phase of refugee reception, but must also try to foster integration programs,” says Lucano. “My idea was to do both, the initial phase and the integration phase, with projects such as the work grants for refugees through the oil mill projects, the social farm, the craft workshops and the houses for welcoming tourists.” Even when granted residence permits and freedom to move around the country, many migrants chose to make Riace home.

It was schemes like these that got Lucano sentenced for supposedly aiding and abetting illegal migration. He insists that no laws were broken — and rejects in the strongest terms accusations that he gained in any way personally through his program. “The strange thing,” Lucano says, “is that the heftiest sentence is for embezzlement despite the evidence provided by the Guardia di Finanza colonel transcripts that said, ‘No, this mayor hasn’t received any money, he doesn’t have current accounts, he doesn’t have any property, he doesn’t have anything, the wiretaps show that his only interest was pursuing an ideal of refugee hosting.’”

Legality Against Morality

While insisting he remained on the right side of the law, which is the basis of his appeal lodged this week, Lucano adds that “inhumanity can be legality.” After being asked for assistance with relocating refugees by the Italian interior ministry under then minister Marco Minniti, of the soft-left Democrats, Lucano was subsequently instructed to kick people out after six months. This would have meant disrupting children’s education — both that of refugee children and others, given the local school was relying on its new population to continue operating. “It was a heavy clash between legality and morality.”

The number of people involved was relatively small by the time of legal proceedings; the total population of the area, including its longer-term residents, is around five hundred. A far larger target for criminality in the administration of migration might be the widespread allegations of racketeering in Italy’s asylum and reception system. But Riace gained international renown for instituting a humane, decent, and progressive way of dealing with the refugee emergency at Europe’s borders, at a time when the space for such thought was dwindling. This is why the Riace model appears to have been a victim of its own narrative success.

Figures including Milan’s former mayor Giuliano Pisapia even claim that one of the objectives of the case against Lucano was to derail a planned TV series about Riace. The mooted series was indeed halted, following a request from Maurizio Gasparri, a senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and former communications minister under the right-wing tycoon. Such a broadcast would have been a significant counterweight to anti-migrant campaigning in the private broadcast press at the time.

Instead, the Right attacked Lucano in a withering media campaign that continues still today, with hard-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini recently accusing Lucano of “colonizing” Italy with African migrants. While judicial issues surrounding Riace and measures like the anti-humanitarian Minniti Code predate Salvini’s tenure, his involvement in the Right’s wider campaign cannot be separated from the court case. Lucano was arrested on October 2, 2018, four months into Salvini’s tenure as interior minister. Meanwhile, maritime rescuers who will face a similar trial in Trapani, Sicily, later this spring have accused Salvini of being at the heart of a spying campaign against their vessel.

Global Struggle

If Lucano is an icon of the Italian left, this story stretches far beyond Italy. Long-running media campaigns to smear humanitarians and aid workers — and even outright criminalization of their efforts — are running themes across Europe as well as the United States, where people providing aid at the Mexican border have faced comparable charges. Only after the intervention of seafaring unions has rescuer criminalization been ruled out of the UK’s new Nationality and Borders Bill. So, too, is the creeping web of monitoring and surveillance applied to anyone rendering assistance, such as the demand that doctors and teachers act as de facto immigration officers or face penalties. I wrote recently about how the European Union will embark on another round of sharpening border violence infrastructure — facilitating abuses by member states even as it formally disavows them. Taken together, this represents the creeping rise of a profoundly antidemocratic politics.

This politics is also about more than migration and borders, and not just because of the wider issues of justice at stake. In the Riace case, refugee resettlement was a component of a broader economic model rooted in solidarity and collective action. To quote Lucano: “The state is absent in this region and there are no factories and industries like in the north of Italy. The reality here is one of welfarism and mafia domination. We don’t have much, so we had to create workshops for all social things out of necessity. Nothing here was private. This is the Riace model.” When he says, “I am convinced that the right to have a home is a universal human right of all human beings,” he is not only talking about refugees but all of us. This has been another reason why people like Lucano are dangerous to established political forces.

The Right publicly campaign against migrants on grounds of a threat to jobs and community. But in the Riace case, migration was building integrated communities and saving local livelihoods, employing local workers on projects, and more. In reality, it is our model of capitalism and its defenders in politics that structure migration in ways that sow division, and then blame migrants for the results. In the same week as the Mimmo appeal begins, hundreds of British seafarers have been dismissed by shipping company P&O and forced from their workplaces by security. Their ships, registered in Cyprus, are not accountable to British labor law. The workers are set to be replaced by exploited migrant workers paid nearly four times less than Britain’s minimum wage, and states and courts seem powerless. This is how our economic model allows the powerful to use border divisions to the detriment of all. Riace demonstrated the possibility of a more decent way of doing things, where people moving were welcomed and everyone benefitted. For this reason, it faced a bitter campaign to expunge it from history.

But that campaign may yet backfire. There is now a growing push to free Mimmo Lucano with support from figures across the globe, and the Progressive International is collecting further signatures. This fight has gained momentum because it is about far more than one man’s freedom, important though that may be. It is about the glimpse of possibility that ideas like the Riace model provide us in difficult times. To put it in Lucano’s words:

Being political is about more than elections because everything is political. It is a condition of society, of human relations and of the choices you make to help build something. . . . That’s what we were taught — that’s the culture of ancient Magna Graecia, isn’t it?”

There was hope and belief in an opportunity to improve the world.