Riace Model: immigration as an opportunity to give new life to uninhabited areas
Two of the greatest problems that not only Europe, but also the whole world faces today, are the depopulation of uninhabited areas (the so-called "ghost towns") and the increasingly persistent migration processes.
In a small southern Italian town called Riace, these two problems were not dealt with separately, but were tackled in parallel, creating one of the most efficient and successful projects to date. This project has been journalistically called the "Riace Model" and its roots go back more than 20 years.
The Kurds arrival: Riace turning point
At the end of the World War II many Italian towns fell into a depopulation crisis, instead of developing from feudal peasant communities into part of the new post-war Italy. One example was Riace, a small city in Calabria, where the population dropped from 2,331 in 1951 to 1668 in 1980. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1998, an apparently insignificant event turned out to be the beginning of a new story: a boat carrying 218 Kurdish refugees was stranded on the Calabrian coast near Riace due to bad weather and rough seas. The citizens took the challenge to help them with special seriousness and agreed that this was their common cause. They collected warm clothes, cooked meals and welcomed the refugees into their homes. Bahram Acar, who was part of the group of Kurds, has stayed in Riace ever since because, as he said, "In Riace I had found a place where I felt at home. The mountains remind me of Kurdistan. So we decided to stay here".
Mimmo Lucano: the mayor beyond the Riace Model
Among these citizens was Domenico, called "Mimmo", Lucano, elected mayor of Riace in 1995. "The houses were abandoned and empty; the local economy was paralyzed," Lucano said.
For this reason, in 1999, he and others founded the "Future City Association" with the goal of reopening abandoned houses and reviving the trades of the past by embracing the concept of hospitality. Consequently, he founded the cooperative "The Village and the Sky" to manage the new weaving, ceramic, glass and jam workshops.
As mayor of Riace, he allowed 450 refugees to settle among the 1,880 residents, revitalizing the town and preventing the closure of the local school. "We shared the dream of a town based on the values of our native culture. A culture of hospitality, of openness," Lucano said.
In this way, Lucano may have found the solution to two of the greatest challenges currently facing humanity: increasing migration and depopulation of regions. As a result, he gained worldwide attention for his innovative approach to dealing with refugees and was listed as one of the world's greatest leaders in Fortune magazine in 2016. And a year later, he was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize.
Model Riace: how to combine depopulation with migratory processes
The hospitality system developed by the mayor, commonly referred to as the Riace Model, consisted of various measures: from renovating abandoned houses with public funds and loans, to welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to work in the town's stores and workshops as artisans in weaving, glass processing and jam making. The Riace Model stood in sharp contrast to the overcrowded asylum centers and the exploitation and discrimination faced by migrants elsewhere in Europe. It was based on a vision of an alternative and welcoming society where everyone participates in the life of the community. This approach was not only beneficial for the migrants, who could finally find a home, but also for the locals and the city's economy. In 2017, the Riace Model involved 550 migrants housed in Riace, but more than 6,000 migrants passed through the city.
Since Riace was run-down and very poor, the arrival of migrants saved the city's economy: The projects created jobs, property rents supported individual families, and sales in local stores increased. External funds, such as public money, flowed into this small economy and resulted in welfare payments becoming the largest investment ever made. In addition, the local economy was rehabilitated through the renovation of unoccupied houses, the renovation of infrastructure, and investments in local crafts.
Furthermore, the Riace Model also helped with the problem of depopulation: from 1,610 residents in 2001 to 1,869 residents in 2021, with a peak of 2,345 residents in 2016.
In addition to the migrant workers, about 60 locals from Riace were employed by the projects as supervisors and support staff. Thus, because these projects also created jobs for locals, the new young generation was able to stay and work in Riace instead of being forced to emigrate.
The Riace model thus proved to be exceptional: it showed that welcoming refugees could turn the tide for a dying town. In just a few years, the local school reopened and businesses flourished again thanks to refugees who were both customers and employees.
The Riace Model has been recognized by the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR), attracting international interest and inspiring various reception projects in Italy and abroad.
The Riace Model and its creator, Mimmo Lucano, also inspired many artists. For instance, in 2010 the director Wim Wenders realized the short film "The flight" and in 2016 the documentary "A country of Calabria" by Catherine Catella was released: both films tell about the events in Riace.
The bitter and unexpected end of the Riace Model
Despite the success of the Riace Model, this alternative approach to migration processes, so highly praised worldwide, provoked much criticism and discontent in Italy, especially from right-wing parties. In 2019, Lucano was indicted by the Public Prosecutor's Office. He was accused of arranging a sham marriage between a resident of Riace and a woman who had been denied asylum three times. Another accusation was of having issued identity papers to a woman and her young son who did not have a residence permit. In 2021, Mimmo Lucano was sentenced to 13 years in prison for these and other charges.
Lucano said in his response to the sentence, "But they were the ones who called me, they were the ones who asked me to take in so many people, humans, because they had nowhere to stay. And I took them in. I committed a crime of humanity". These words show that he deliberately violated laws that he considered unjust and detrimental to the rights of immigrants and residents of Riace.
Moreover, these sentences against him seem to be a vicious attack on a project that has successfully demonstrated that it has the potential to regenerate shrinking areas by creating welcoming spaces. After these events, the Riace Model was slowly dismantled and Riace, which was once the heart of the immigrant district, became a ghost town again. The specialized stores and workshops that had employed and trained migrants are now closed and most of the migrants have also disappeared. In addition, the city's population has dropped from 2,313 in 2017 to 1,869 in 2021.
A beacon of hope and guidance to a more human approach
However, the Riace experience was by no means useless: the Riace Model was, and still is, a crucial signpost on how to address migration processes and depopulation by giving dignity to both people and territories. The socio-economic revitalization of Riace has inspired a growing number of other shrinking European communities to initiate programs for refugees. The Riace Model has shown that a different and more humane way is possible and that hospitality and solidarity towards those in need and sustainable local development can go hand in hand.
Written by Joana Ribeiro Vieira Lima