The mayor of an Italian town known around the world as a model of integration has been put under house arrest for ‘aiding illegal migration’.
Domenico Lucano, who has been the mayor of the southern Italian town of Riace since 2004, is also accused of unlawful conduct in assigning contracts for rubbish collection services.
Lucano’s partner, Tesfahun Lemlem, was banned from living in the town under the same charges.
The arrest on Tuesday morning came amid a government inquiry into the allocation of funds for refugees in the town.
Italy’s populist government has adopted a hardline stance on migration controls in recent months.
Lucano has won international acclaim for ‘repopulating’ Riace with migrants and successfully integrating the arrivals.
With a population of about 1,500, the town hosts around 500 migrants and refugees from more than 20 countries.
Like other small towns across Italy, it has witnessed the massive flight of young people in recent decades, who left looking for economic opportunities elsewhere.
Lucano’s model gained international attention at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 and he made Fortune Magazine’s 50 greatest leaders list in 2016.
Refugees and migrants in Italy are usually hosted in reception centres, most of them privately run but publicly funded, with strict rules and timetables guests have to follow.
These rules and the centres’ locations, often far from city centres, have made it difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to integrate and hold down a job.
In Riace, they have been given homes left empty by former residents. They also have the opportunity to work through a programme that has created employment among both refugees and locals – the first focused on cultural mediation and local craftsmanship and the second on language teaching.
The investigation against Lucano began in November last year. Prosecutors said in a note that “it brought to light the unscrupulousness of Mr Lucano, despite his institutional role, in organising ‘weddings of convenience’ between Riace citizens and foreign women, with the ultimate aim to facilitate the latter’s stay in Italy.”
Authorities wiretapped a conversation between the mayor and his partner where he talked about ways to help a Nigerian woman who had been denied a stay permit three times.
“It seems to me there are a number of irregularities in that supposed model,” Italy’s right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini stated in late August, after anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano, an outspoken supporter of the mayor’s work, called for him to visit Riace.
“I have been and I will go back to [the Calabria region] to visit all those mayors who work for Italian people, and not for the immigration business,” Salvini said.
In a Facebook post after Lucano’s arrest on Tuesday, Saviano wrote: “the goal of Mimmo [Domenico] Lucano’s actions is not profit, but civil disobedience.”
“Civil disobedience: this is the only weapon we have to defend not only the rights of migrants, but everyone’s,” argued the author, concluding that the investigation is “the first step towards Italy’s definitive transformation from democracy to an authoritarian state.”
A number of civil society organisations have expressed concern about the arrest, which they see as yet another attack by a government that has built its popularity partly on anti-migrant rhetoric.
“It started with NGOs saving lives at sea. Now it’s the turn of those who do it on land,” wrote Naples-based anti-racism group Associazione 3 Febbraio in a statement calling for solidarity with the mayor.
For Leonardo Neglia, the mayor of Petralia Sottana, a town near Palermo with less than 3,000 residents, Lucano’s reception model is one to replicate.
Neglia had considered starting a similar project in Petralia Sottana, although the idea has been put on hold after the government’s ‘migration and security’ decree.
“Beyond technical and juridical considerations, I think his reception model should be recreated in other municipalities,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We were looking for people who would be willing to make their empty homes in the city centre available for the project. There are many, due to the depopulation of our towns as many young people leave, creating a vicious circle of impoverishment,” Neglia added.
“But this [arrest] sends a message that times have changed.”