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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 November 2018

A cruel and callous blow for a refugee success story

Italy's far-right government should be ashamed of its attitude to Riace

Migrants protest in support of Riace mayor Domenico Lucano with the slogan 'you can't arrest Riace'. Yara Nardi / Reuters
Migrants protest in support of Riace mayor Domenico Lucano with the slogan 'you can't arrest Riace'. Yara Nardi / Reuters

The Ritsona camp north of Athens is home to 750 refugees awaiting asylum. Having fled nations such as Iraq and Syria with nothing, many have built small but thriving businesses.

From barbers to groceries, each enterprise stands testament to human endurance. They also illustrate the drive and commitment to the pursuit of a better life possessed by the majority of those who escape hardship.

As Ismail Hussein, a coffee shop owner from Damascus, told The National in our special report: “I cannot sit at home … I have a family of six and if I don’t work, what will I do?” It is a familiar sentiment, echoed in refugee settlements everywhere from Zaatari in Jordan to Dadaab in Kenya.

Twenty years ago, Riace, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, was in danger of becoming deserted, thanks to many of its population leaving in search of work.

The village’s fortunes changed when mayor Domenico Lucano established a government-funded programme that offered both refugees and migrants housing and employment training.

In the years that followed, a vibrant community flourished and the economy grew. People from nations such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya comprised more than 25 per cent of the 2,000-strong population, skills were swapped between new arrivals and existing residents, a network of craft workshops sprang up and lasting friendships were made.

In 2016, Mr Lucano was named one of the world’s 50 great leaders and the Riace model, which inspired a film, was held up as an example to the world.

But all this good work is being undone. Riace’s funding has been slashed and the local government is €2 million (Dh8.4m) in debt. Mr Lucano, who recently went on hunger strike to protest against funding cuts, has been placed under house arrest on allegations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

Now Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini – a member of the right-wing nationalist Lega party – has ordered the transfer of hundreds of refugees to detention centres by next week.

Setting aside Mr Lucano’s protests of innocence, this move is cynical and heartless. Riace proved to the world that, regardless of the economic advantages of migration, its real benefits lie in the diverse communities it creates.

Tearing down this globally respected symbol of pluralism and uprooting many of its people will be a great victory for a hardline anti-immigration politician like Mr Salvini.

It will, however, be a huge loss for the village, for Italy and for the wider world.