Thousands of Italians, migrants rally for accused ‘refugee mayor’

An estimated 6,000 people protested in Riace. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
An estimated 6,000 people protested in Riace. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA

Riace, Italy – An estimated 6,000 people protested in Riace, a small village perched on top of a barren hill in the southern Italian region of Calabria, against the arrest of its mayor Domenico Lucano. Known as the “refugee mayor”, he stands accused of aiding and abetting undocumented migration.

Lucano won international acclaim for repopulating the dying village with refugees, successfully integrating them into the community. Like other small towns across Italy, Riace has been subject to depopulation as over the years, young people have abandoned their homes to go abroad. Instead of housing refugees into segregated reception centres, the mayor contacted the Italian emigrants to open their old homes. At its peak, the town of 1,500 hosted 500 refugees and asylum seekers from 20 countries.

Protesters believe the investigation against Lucano to be political, and came to express solidarity with the mayor and the idea he represents. The mayor was put under house arrest October 2 as the state accuses him of facilitating “marriages of convenience”. In a wiretapped conversation, he’s heard talking about ways of obtaining a residency permit for a Nigerian woman who has been denied international protection three times. He is also accused of irregularities in allocating contracts for rubbish collection services run by refugees.

The arrest came after a year-long investigation into the management of funds for refugees in the town, which saw the mayor investigated for racketeering, embezzlement and fraud, alongside 31 others. A preliminary examination judge did not find enough evidence to support those charges.

Riace's history with refugees starts in 1998, when more than 200 Kurds arrived on its rugged beach on the Ionic coast and were spontaneously hosted by residents. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Riace’s history with refugees starts in 1998, when more than 200 Kurds arrived on its rugged beach on the Ionic coast and were spontaneously hosted by residents. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Morsal is 17 and from Afghanistan. She arrived via Turkey and the Mediterranean seven years ago and now goes to school and speaks perfect Italian. The banner she''s writing in preparation for the demonstration reads 'We are all Mimmo Lucano.' [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Morsal is 17 and from Afghanistan. She arrived via Turkey and the Mediterranean seven years ago and now goes to school and speaks perfect Italian. The banner she”s writing in preparation for the demonstration reads ‘We are all Mimmo Lucano.’ YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
A virtuous circle was established in Riace as jobs were created for refugees and locals alike, the first employed in local handicrafts, and the second in activities like language teaching. For the past few weeks, artisan shops in town have been shut in protest to the town not receiving funding for the past two years. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
A virtuous circle was established in Riace as jobs were created for refugees and locals alike, the first employed in local handicrafts, and the second in activities like language teaching. For the past few weeks, artisan shops in town have been shut in protest to the town not receiving funding for the past two years. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Another resident who was preparing for the afternoon protest, Saibou Sabitiou, from Togo, has lived in Riace since race riots in nearby Rosarno led to what has been termed 'ethnic cleansing' of the town. 'Thanks to Mimmo Lucano, I can work here and send money home, so my child can go to school.' [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Another resident who was preparing for the afternoon protest, Saibou Sabitiou, from Togo, has lived in Riace since race riots in nearby Rosarno led to what has been termed ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the town. ‘Thanks to Mimmo Lucano, I can work here and send money home, so my child can go to school.’ YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Thousands of demonstrators left early in the morning to get to the remote village from all over Italy. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Thousands of demonstrators left early in the morning to get to the remote village from all over Italy. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Refugees who live in the town were at the forefront of the demonstration, shouting 'Freedom for Mimmo.' [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Refugees who live in the town were at the forefront of the demonstration, shouting ‘Freedom for Mimmo.’ YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
The march set off from the town's central square. Among the organisations taking part were trade unions, anti-racism and anti-mafia and migrant rights groups. Parliamentarian Laura Boldrini was also present and the famous writer Roberto Saviano expressed his support, among others. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
The march set off from the town’s central square. Among the organisations taking part were trade unions, anti-racism and anti-mafia and migrant rights groups. Parliamentarian Laura Boldrini was also present and the famous writer Roberto Saviano expressed his support, among others. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Mayors from other small towns across Italy took part. 'Receiving refugees is not only a moral duty, it''s an opportunity to revitalise our towns,' said Gabriele Abbaterusso, mayor of a town near Lecce. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Mayors from other small towns across Italy took part. ‘Receiving refugees is not only a moral duty, it”s an opportunity to revitalise our towns,’ said Gabriele Abbaterusso, mayor of a town near Lecce. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Among participants were asylum seekers and refugees from other towns and cities. 'He defends the right cause,' said Ibrahim, from Mali. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Among participants were asylum seekers and refugees from other towns and cities. ‘He defends the right cause,’ said Ibrahim, from Mali. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Views of the demonstration. 'These past few days, in Mimmo's eyes and words I found my friend Peppino,' said Marcella Stagno, referring to the journalist and political activist killed by the mafia in Sicily in 1978. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Views of the demonstration. ‘These past few days, in Mimmo’s eyes and words I found my friend Peppino,’ said Marcella Stagno, referring to the journalist and political activist killed by the mafia in Sicily in 1978. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Fifty activists from the Baobab camp aimed at refugees who have fallen out of the reception system travelled from Rome. 'If we exist is also because of role models like Lucano, that taught us the meaning of integration far before the so-called refugee crisis,' said Andrea Costa. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Fifty activists from the Baobab camp aimed at refugees who have fallen out of the reception system travelled from Rome. ‘If we exist is also because of role models like Lucano, that taught us the meaning of integration far before the so-called refugee crisis,’ said Andrea Costa. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
The march ended in front of Domenico Lucano's home. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
The march ended in front of Domenico Lucano’s home. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Domenico Lucano, who is under house arrest, and his family and friends came to the window, moved by the crowd. 'It is to disregard these foolish laws that I go against the law,' Lucano says in the wiretapped phone conversation. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Domenico Lucano, who is under house arrest, and his family and friends came to the window, moved by the crowd. ‘It is to disregard these foolish laws that I go against the law,’ Lucano says in the wiretapped phone conversation. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Speakers addressed demonstrators at a rally in the town's amphitheatre. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Speakers addressed demonstrators at a rally in the town’s amphitheatre. YLENIA GOSTOLI/AL JAZEERA
Among the speakers was Italian Ivorian trade unionist Aboubakar Soumahoro. 'Disobeying inhuman laws is right because we are on the side of humanity,' Soumahoro, who works against exploitation of foreign workers in agriculture, said. [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Among the speakers was Italian Ivorian trade unionist Aboubakar Soumahoro. ‘Disobeying inhuman laws is right because we are on the side of humanity,’ Soumahoro, who works against exploitation of foreign workers in agriculture, said.


Sources and photo-credits: Al Jazeera