The mayor of a small town in Italy has been arrested for allegedly aiding illegal immigration.
Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace in southern Italy, gained fame locally for promoting a pro-immigration policy of welcoming migrants and refugees to the town.
As Italy’s economy boomed in the mid to late 1990s, many residents of Riace moved north or abroad for jobs, leaving housing abandoned and local schools and services at risk of closure. The local population dropped from 2,500 to around 400. In 1998 Lucano pioneered a scheme offering jobs and the abandoned homes to incoming immigrants, saying: “There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here. It’s simple.”
Over 3,000 immigrants passed through Riace, which saw its population return to the thousands; and workshops and bakeries reopened. Newcomers were able to learn local trades and jobs opened up for residents in integration-based fields: translation, teaching Italian, or immigration bureaucracy. Around a third of Riace’s population now comprises immigrants from more than 20 countries.
Lucano, who was named one of Fortune magazine’s 50 greatest leaders in 2016, has been under investigation for fraud, bribery and abuse of office since earlier this year. In August he went on a hunger strike to protest the withdrawal from Riace of funds meant to support migrants.
Since 2016 Italy has taken an increasingly hardline approach to immigration as the far right has gained political ground. Riace, and particularly its mayor, have endured close scrutiny and criticism for its pro-immigration approach, with the Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini accusing migrants of living in luxury hotels on public money.
Lucano has been placed under house arrest while investigations continue, while his partner Tesfahun Lemlem has had her residency blocked. The main charges against Lucano pertain to alleged fraudulent awarding of waste contracts and facilitating ‘marriages of convenience’ between immigrants and locals, although the judge who drew up the charges conceded Lucano had not profited from any mismanagement of funds.