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How small town mayors resist Italy's new anti-migrant law

  • Eleonora Vio
  • 24 Dec 2018

Several mayors believe that the far-right minister Matteo Salvini's decree is harsh and at odds with their migrant-friendly practices, which helped them improve the economies of their towns and neighbourhoods in the last two decades.

A graffiti drawn on the walls surrounding the main square of Gioiosa says: "Fight, unity and popular participation for the civil and democratic growth of Gioiosa Ionica and the South of Italy." ( Eleonora Vio / TRTWorld )

CALABRIA, Italy — On a Sunday morning in early December, an elderly man sat down by the main square of Gioiosa Ionica, a sleepy town of not more than 7000 people in southern Italy's Locride Valley. The man stretched himself under the chilly sun, opened up the local newspaper which carried tragic news about an 18-year-old immigrant boy named Suruwa Jaithe from Gambia, who had burned to death in San Ferdinando makeshift camp off Gioia Tauro, an industrial coast town which is about 49 kilometres away from Gioiosa Ionica. 

The old man recognised Jaithe's photograph, as he had met him at Gioiosa Ionica's main square just a few days ago. What drove Jaithe to San Ferdinando is still unclear. Some say he was visiting his friends; others claim he was scared that he would become one of the targets of Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's latest Decree-Law on Immigration, which has removed humanitarian protection for asylum-seekers. The decree was recently passed into law. 

Gioiosa Ionica is a supportive place for migrants and refugees, so is Cinquefrondi, which is about 24 kilometres away from Gioiosa Ionica. But these are largely underreported or ignored examples of how well-thought territorial policies can contribute to improve people’s livelihood, even in difficult places like the Locride Valley and the Plain of Gioia Tauro, where one of the world's most dangerous mafia groups ‘ndrangheta operates and unemployment has crossed the 70 per cent mark.

“In the past, politics was animated by a global perspective, but this dimension got lost and that’s why we decided to focus more on our sole communities,” explains Salvatore Fuda, the twice-elected mayor of Gioiosa Ionica. “We wanted our municipality to shift from being just an ID-making machine into a more practical entity." 

Alessia Barbiero is the coordinator of the SPRAR of Gioiosa Ionica.(TRTWorld)

Up until 2015, it was unthinkable to see migrants, especially from African countries, walk beyond Gioiosa Ionica's city square fountain. The square was split into two halves. "Local people would stick to the monument, whilst our African guys wouldn’t surpass the fountain. It was some kind of non-written racial segregation,” said Alessia Barbiero, coordinator at The Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees, also known as SPRAR, in Gioiosa Ionica. 

Today, the two sides have blended so well that it’s no longer unusual to see them sharing not only the same half of the square, but also the same bench.

Gioiosa Ionica has a long history of resistance. Towards the end of the 1970s, the city filed a lawsuit against ‘ndrangheta, which initiated the first ever criminal proceedings against the mafia, and since then it has fought for various causes. 

Gioiosa Ionica was inspired by its neighbouring village Riace. In the late 1990s, when Riace was neck deep in economic hardship with its historic city centre almost deserted and people craving for jobs and stability, some migrant boats stopped by its shores. A school teacher named Domenico Lucano gave them a warm welcome, opening some abandoned apartments for them. A decade later, Riace was teeming with both social and economic activity. Lucano, who by then became the city mayor, earned a reputation of being the saviour of Riace, attracting praise in both national and international media and was featured in Fortune magazine's 40 most influential leaders in 2016. 

Michele Conia is the mayor of Cinquefrondi.(TRTWorld)

Taking a cue from Riace's success story and other successful samples of solidarity, the Italian government introduced the SPRAR program in 2002, allowing municipalities to grant housing and job training to migrants and refugees, besides providing them food and other services.  

By 2013, Gioiosa Ionica roped in a network of solidarity municipalities called RECOSOL.  Spread across 300 Italian towns, RECOSOL itself supervised  Gioiosa Ionica's SPRAR program, which soon became one of the most successful examples of migrant integration across Italy.  

“RECOSOL was formed to create decentred cooperation in less developed countries and promote the exchange of good practices amongst our partner municipalities,” said Giovanni Maiolo, former SPRAR’s coordinator of Gioiosa and RECOSOL’s current legal representative. “Amongst the latter, there is the Riace experience and the model of widespread reception adopted by Gioiosa and Cinquefrondi, alongside 1200 other civic administrations.”

“In our case the phenomenon of depopulation was less critical, thus that experience served mainly to show the benefits of widespread reception and teach us how to be human beyond any race and religion,” Michele Conia, mayor of Cinquefrondi, told TRT World.  

Such kind hearted efforts have changed people’s lives for good. Take the 21-one-year-old Buba from Senegal. He arrived in Gioiosa Ionica four years ago and, after a short experience as a dishwasher, he was trained as a pizzaiolo (pizza maker). Soon after, he signed up for a regular contract. “I worked hard, like most of the other guys, but I was the luckiest to find my boss,” he said, as he ate his breakfast. “Even if things change, I will stay here. I have a job. Why should I leave? It’s hard to find a place where people care for you and do not  judge you because of your skin [colour].”

Salvatore Fuda is the mayor of Gioiosa Ionica. Behind him there is a sign saying: "No one is clandestine."(TRTWorld)

With Italian minister Matteo Salvini issuing a diktat to render the locally favourable SPRAR program obsolete, the social and economic conditions for migrants will no longer be the same. 

Italian government placed mayor Lucano of Riace under house arrest in early October. He was charged with "aiding illegal migration" but the court cleared him later. The incident however led to the ouster of mayor Lucano, who no longer lives in Riace. And even the successful SPRARs in the town faced closure, as the government transferred most of the migrants to other reception centres. This all has brought Riace to square one, when the town was almost deserted and reeling under unemployment. 

The asylum-seekers are now kept inside the CARAs or hotspots for up to 30 days, to check both their identity and citizenship. If after 30 days their identity hasn't been confirmed, they can be moved to the return centres (or Cprs), where they'll be held for maximum 180 days until they are deported to their countries of origin. The migrants who don't belong to war or conflict zones are immediately moved to Cprs, without sending them to CARAs. 

“The idea of piling up thousand people within a single centre – like in the first reception or Accommodation Centres for Asylum Seekers (CARAs) - means depriving them of their dignity,” said the SPRARs coordinator Barbiero. 

Barbiero said contrary to CARAs, inside the SPRAR migrants are encouraged to feel home. "By giving them the chance to choose what they want to eat, or what time they will sleep,"she added, "we help them reconstruct their broken identities and regain autonomy. We also encourage them to know their local neighbours and blend into the already existing social substratum.” 

What makes Barbiero and mayor Fuda proud the most is that after this six-month program, 20 beneficiaries have decided to stay in Gioiosa, where they found a job, a house and a friendly community.  

Mayors like Fuda and Lucano, and community workers like Barbiero are trying their best to counter the anti-migrant narrative that started gaining foothold due to the rise of the far-right in Italy. 

Mayor Lucano with a migrant child in October 2018.(Reuters)

Michele Conia, for instance, has been managing Cinquefrondi, a town not far from Gioia Tauro, since 2015. A victim of both ‘ndrangheta and unemployment, Conia said he's facing intimidation. On December 6, he said some unknown people entered his family house and, besides damaging the furniture, drew some crosses on the wall and the mayor's initials just next to them. Without naming any mafia, he said the act was a clear death threat. The reason behind this hostility, he said, is centered around his unflinching support to social welfare, which largely includes migrant communities. "Despite all problems, I convinced my people that they didn’t have to rise up against the migrants, who are poor people like them, but against ‘ndrangheta, which forces them to constantly pay protection money, as well as against the multinationals and all criminals without exception,” he said, raising his voice in frustration, as he chain smoked cigarettes. “A few years ago, I was a victim of a terrorist attack and I had to pick up my mother’s body from the fire. Even this has never stopped me [from supporting migrants].” 

Most of the flats where the SPRAR's beneficiaries live are set in the higher historical part of Gioiosa.(TRTWorld)

While CARAs have become vulnerable to mafias like ‘ndrangheta, the SPRAR was impenetrable for criminal gangs. The same ministry of interior — which issued a decree asking municipalities to stop entertaining migrants purely on humanitarian grounds — monitored the SPRAR system, keeping mafias at bay.    

For Barbiero, far-right politician Salvini's decree to hinder SPRAR is unfathomable.

Referring to mafias infiltrating in CARAs affiliated migrant centres, she said: "Mr Minister (Salvini), do you really think you defeated the reception business? It's inside CARAs that mafia operate."

The new Immigration law doesn’t mention directly the closure of SPRARs, but it does eliminate the clause of humanitarian protection every migrant was entitled to under the program. It also complicates asylum that is not tied to political persecution or war.   

As a result, the SPRARs is unable to retain the migrants. In early 2017, at least 20,000 people, or 25 percent asylum-seekers, were granted humanitarian protection and by the fall,  a large number of them were forced to leave the country, unless they signed a regular work contract. 

“It’s totally irrational to dismantle the SPRAR model,” said mayor Fuda. “How long will the government’s drunkenness last for?” 

The new law not only threatens to reverse the economic gains of towns like Riace and Gioiosa Ionica, it also causes deep anxieties among the migrants. Many people in Gioiosa Ionica wonder whether it was the feeling of insecurity that drove Suruwa Jaithe out of his home to meet his friends in Gioia Tauro, where he eventually died in an accidental fire. 

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