The World

The Riace Experiment

A tiny Italian town saved itself from extinction by welcoming hundreds of refugees. But it may not be able to continue much longer.

People gathering in the town of Riace.
Writer and journalist Roberto Saviano meets with Riace Mayor Domenico Lucano in the Italian town. Enrico Mattia Del Punta/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The town of Riace is a little more than a handful of dwellings atop a small hill in Calabria, the southernmost region of Italy. Here, it can feel like the clocks stopped ticking decades ago. Young people prefer the local dialect to Italian. Buildings are eternal construction sites. Modern infrastructure is almost nonexistent. Riace is one of several medieval Italian towns, many of them in the south, that until recently seemed fated to become abandoned as a result of the postwar economic boom that saw mass migration from rural areas to cities. In Riace as in many other villages, the young locals that moved away looking for jobs were never replaced, and the town was left in the hands of an increasingly elderly population.

But Riace wasn’t going to go down without a fight. At the beginning of the 2000s, the city decided to combat depopulation with a surprising strategy: welcoming thousands of migrants in search of political asylum and integrating them into the local economy. This move made the town famous and Mayor Domenico Lucano—or Mimì Capatosta (Hardheaded), as the locals call him—something of a global celebrity. He was listed as one of the world’s 50 “greatest leaders” by Fortune in 2016.

But at a time when Italy’s national government is enacting anti-immigration policies and the population is growing increasingly skeptical and intolerant toward migrants, the Riace model is at risk, and with it the idea that an alternative model of reception, which sees immigration as a resource and not as a burden, can be applied in Italy.

Before 2004, Riace had mainly appeared in national news for three reasons: being in an area with a heavy presence of ‘Ndràngheta (a Mafia-like organized crime group), the discovery of the famous Bronzi di Riace in the ’70s, and the 1998 arrival of 184 refugees from Kurdistan. On a summer night of that year, these migrants, half of them children, were found walking single-file on the highway that runs alongside the town. It was a more welcoming era for migrants in Italy, but Riace’s acceptance of its new residents stood out.

But by 2004, the beginning of Lucano’s first term, Riace was dying. The 186 Kurds had almost all left town, as had many locals. Its population was down to about 500, compared to 3,000 before World War II. The just-elected mayor’s antidote to this trend was quite simple: welcoming more refugees in order to stop depopulation, integrating them into the local economy in order to boost it, and making them part of Riace’s social system in order to keep it alive. Or as he recently told me, seated at a cafe in the town’s main square on a hot July morning: “Let them help Riace, and help them in return.”

He continued: “The situation was dramatic and it called for a dramatic solution: we had a lot of abandoned dwellings, local shops were out of business, there weren’t kids or young people. On the other hand, there were people who needed homes, jobs, hospitality. I don’t think I did anything heroic, it was the simplest action I could think of.”

Over the following 15 years Riace became a refuge for people escaping hunger, war, and persecution. Since 2004, it is estimated that more than 6,000 migrants have passed through Riace. About 500, from more than 20 different countries, now live there, out of a population of about 1,500 people.

Today, the town proudly touts its devotion to hospitality and tolerance: A sign at the beach states that everybody, from land and sea, is welcome; the steps of the local amphitheater are painted with the colors of the peace flag; the dwellings in the hearth of the town, an area called Villaggio Globale (Global Village), are decorated with murals of boats—bringing to mind the journey that many people made to get there—clouds bearing the names of the many countries that make up the local population.

Riace isn’t the only town that has willingly taken in refugees, but what makes this community in the middle of Calabria special is the way it has dealt with them once they arrived. In most of Italy, refugees are usually hosted in dedicated facilities, with timetables and rules to follow, often isolated geographically from the community. The Riace model stood out for its emphasis on making the refugees lives as normal as possible: They are given real homes, they are free to decide what to do with their days and how to manage their time, and above all, they are given the opportunity to work.

Dozens of jobs were created for migrants and locals alike, under the guidance of Città Futura, a non-governmental organization founded by the mayor with this specific goal in mind. Locals were employed in roles related to integration, creating a network of cultural mediators, translators, and Italian-language teachers. The migrants, meanwhile, worked on restoring houses, keeping the city clean and functional, and found employment in the numerous workshops that are now one of Riace’s most recognizable features.

The old houses of the Villaggio Globale host several workshops teaching artisanal techniques in making and selling local products: ceramics, woodwork, chocolate, glassware, and kites, to name a few. In each of them, migrants work six hours a day side by side with locals, for a salary of about 600 euros a month.

As I wandered from one to the other asking questions, I perceived a preference in people to speak about their jobs rather than their past. Totò, a 23-year old woodworker born and raised in the town, tells me he is happy to have a job that did not exist up until a few years ago. Fatima, an Afghan woman in the sewing workshop, talks to me about how she learned her craft and how much better it is than being confined in a refugee camp. But mostly, people idly complain about the long working hours, the difficulties of staying on top of everything, and the slow business. In other words, the same comments and complaints as any worker in the world, more or less. There’s extraordinary degree of normalcy to a situation that could have been all but normal.

The same pursuit of normalcy was behind the other unique feature of the Riace model: the vouchers that, until last year, were given to migrants in lieu of money. Under the Italian system, local governments receive an average of 35 euros per day for every migrant they take in. Of this money, a small part (about 2.50 euros a day) goes directly to the migrants. The rest is used by the local government to meet the various costs of maintenance, housing, training, and so on. In most places, this money is usually given to migrants directly in cash or grocery, in Riace half the full 35 euros that each migrant was entitled to was given to them in form of vouchers: pieces of paper with the faces of iconic figures such as Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, or Gandhi.

The system might seem to be restrictive, but it was meant to foster a sense of community. “It was a symbolic act that had some very practical reasons behind it,” explains local politician Maria Spanò, a member of L’altra Riace, the left-wing party list now in charge of the local government. “First of all, there was the intention of avoiding the distribution of cash or groceries, which can be humiliating. Then, the willingness to give these people a little control over their money, to spend it on food or stuff they liked. Lastly, they were intended to make up for the regular delays with which money is distributed by the central government.” These vouchers act as a kind of credit for the local shopkeepers, who would be reimbursed once the local government receives the money.

These two instruments, the employment programs and the vouchers brought the Riace model appreciation from all over the world, including praise from Pope Francis.

However, the model’s fame does not guarantee its continuity. Today, the very pillars of the Riace model are at risk, and its future looks grim. Talking to people in the town, there is a tendency to use the past tense, and a pervasive sense of mistrust toward institutions and the central government.

The first problem is economic. Calabria is among the poorest regions in Europe, with one of the highest unemployment rates (more than 20 percent for the population as a whole, 60 percent for people under 25); a region in which, due mainly to the lack of services and infrastructure, tourism is almost completely absent; where corruption is everywhere, thanks in large part to the ‘Ndrangheta, has an interest in keeping the region underdeveloped.

In this environment, Riace’s model cannot stand on its own two legs. It relies completely on the immigration funds paid to the town by the central government. The bureaucracy involved in making sure the town receives its immigration funds is very delicate and complex, and includes frequent inspections and reports to keep track of where the money goes, how it is spent, and which programs can be implemented and how. These problems were manageable, and the government willing to support the town, the political winds changed in 2016. First, the use of the vouchers was deemed unacceptable by the minister of the interior, and they had to be abandoned. Then, the funds allocated to the employment programs stopped arriving.

A big chunk of the funds the town had been receiving is frozen while government commissions analyze its programs. The massive delay in backlogged payments has further dried out the town treasury. People have not received their salaries for months now. Local business owners have not been reimbursed the advanced money from the vouchers. So far, Riace has been able to keep going thanks to a network of volunteers, the help of migrant associations, and the patience of its inhabitants. But today the city it at risk of default.

And yet, the most absurd thing in this complex story is the fact that nobody, from politicians to operators, seems to know why exactly the funds were cut or suspended, whether the measure is temporary or definitive, if other inspections will bring different answers.
When it was announced at the beginning of August that Riace would not receive funds for the first half of 2018, Mayor Lucano went on a hunger strike to protest against the “injustice that Riace has been suffering in the last two years,” pointing out “a huge debt accumulated towards the workers, suppliers, and the refugees themselves.” Meanwhile, in recent weeks, several public figures, including anti-mafia journalist Roberto Saviano, made an appeal in defense of Riace and it was launched a fundraising to support its model.

In the absence of long-term answers, Riace is living in a sort of limbo where the only sure thing is that the current situation is not sustainable for long. Adding further doubts, Lucano is currently under investigation for fraud, bribery, and abuse of office. The charges are related to a lack of sufficient reports for some expenses related to migrant programs in 2014.

The approach to immigration in Italy has deeply changed. It did not happen overnight, and it would be too easy to blame it all on the new government. It was a long process in which many factors played a role: the economic crisis, politicians unable to respond to people’s needs and prone to sending whatever message was needed in order to gather some votes, the geographic position, the lack of help from Europe, the inability of states to cope with globalization. The result of all this is a xenophobic and nationalist government, whose approach toward immigration in personified by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) party—Lucano’s nemesis, who has already stated that he considers the mayor of Riace “a zero.”

Salvini’s political message is almost completely focused on his fight against immigration, and one of his favorite subjects is the 35 euros a day given to each migrant—money that, according to him, is turning migrants into rich idlers who spend their days in luxury hotels paid for by Italian citizens. This message made Lega Nord one of the winners in Italy’s last election, allowing it to form a government with the Five Star Movement.

Even in Riace, Salvini’s message appeals to some. In the days I spent there, most of the residents I talked to defended their mayor and his approach toward immigration. But I also met a consistent minority that could not help but show poorly concealed hostility toward migrants. They voiced a watered down versions of Salvini’s “Italians first,” with the insuperable conviction that the money going to migrants should be going to Italians instead. Often they voiced suspicions that the mayor was personally benefiting from the immigration program.

In this context, with Lucano’s time in office coming to an end and no certainty of who will succeed him, Riace could come to represent the exact opposite of what it has represented so far: not the dream of a welcoming and tolerant Italy, but a demonstration that utopias cannot exist in reality.