How Italy's migrant model town Riace veered far-right

Kelly VELASQUEZ
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The colourful welcoming signs for refugees are still up, but the town of Riace has swung far-right, against the migrant experiment it once championed

The colourful welcoming signs for refugees are still up, but the town of Riace has swung far-right, against the migrant experiment it once championed (AFP Photo/Alberto PIZZOLI)

Riace (Italy) (AFP) - The sign reading "Riace, land of welcome" still hangs in the small town, but its dream of migrant integration is over after the far-right's "Italians first" election victory.

The new mayor of the one-time "global village" in southern Italy's rural Calabria elected on May 26 with the support of Matteo Salvini's anti-migrant Lega party, Antonio Trifoli, has so far left the sign up.

"We will welcome refugees again," he told AFP.

"But we can't have 500 to 600 asylum seekers in a town with 1,500 residents," said the former town policeman.

Trifoli was first on the independent "Riace reborn" list, backed by the Lega, whose supporters provided many of the 41.8 percent of the 1,103 votes he won.

Until just a few years ago, the Lega was a separatist party at the other end of the country which sneeringly referred to southerners as "bumpkins" or worse.

"The problem is that we had too many migrants and we lost the spirit of openness there was initially," said Trifoli.

"A whole economic system developed with the migrants, but without making the village dynamic again... The model destroyed itself," he said.

Former mayor Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano encouraged migrants and refugees to come to the village to counter a gradual decline of inhabitants and workers and show how migrant integration could be done.

But now he is no longer even a member of the town council after his left-backed list lost in the elections, and he has been barred from the town.

Lucano is due in court next week to face charges including that he failed to put to tender a garbage collection contract that went to a migrant-linked cooperative.

German director Wim Wenders made a documentary in 2010 featuring the leftist mayor and Riace's refugees, but Lucano was last year placed under house arrest for allegedly setting up fake marriages to help foreign women stay in the country after their asylum applications were rejected.

The debacle came after a populist coalition formed by Salvini, the country's hardline anti-immigrant deputy prime minister who also holds the interior ministry portfolio, and Luigi Di Maio's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) formed a government in June last year.

The shops and workshops previously occupied by migrants are now shuttered.

The village's historic streets are largely deserted, with funereal music occasionally punctuating the silence.

Colourful, multi-ethnic murals can still be seen on walls, testimony to the experiment that took place here and the hopes for migrant integration it spawned in Italy and beyond, before it failed amid alienated locals and allegations of fraud.

- 'Order and discipline' -

"Here, we need order and discipline," said agricultural engineer Claudio Falchi, a Milan native who moved here 25 years ago.

Three years ago he became Lega leader in Riace.

"They were fighting among themselves, they didn't want the crucifix, or the creche," Falchi said of the migrants.

"It's not racism, it's just that this is our home. We welcome them and then they make problems."

Locals are reluctant to talk about the past or discuss the predicament of the village, which, like so many in Calabria is seeing its youth leave in search of work as the elderly slowly die off.

"People wanted things to change. After 15 years of talking only about welcoming and refugees, they got tired," said mayor Trifoli.

"Taking in refugees gave Riace prestige around the world but its inhabitants lost interest."

Over the years the town took in around 6,000 migrants, opened shops and workshops and even launched its own currency stamped with the heads of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King.

But that model of tolerance and inclusion has disappeared.

"Almost everyone has gone. There aren't even any more children," said Daniel, a 37-year-old Ghanaian, in perfect Italian.

The Lega was the big winner in last month's European parliamentary elections, taking more than 34 percent of national votes.

On the southern island of Lampedusa, where many migrants arrived after making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, the Lega won more than 45 percent of votes.