Refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe have been welcomed as a new breath of life in Italian towns left deserted by economic hardship and an ageing population. Training and integration efforts are funded in the town through the Italian government and its spending is managed by a community trust, pooling the money where it’s most useful locally. Hundreds of refugees have settled in towns in the south of Italy that had shrunk to a fraction of their size, revitalising communities and services that were under threat.
Results & Impact
More than 450 migrants now live in Riace, and the town has grown from a depleted level of 400 people to around 2,500, the same number that lived there in the 1990s. Some 6,000 migrants have passed through since 1998
European Union, Riace Mayor’s Office, Italian Government, Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (SPRAR), Mediazone Globale
Funding from the EU and national government is managed by the local municipality and cooperatives run by refugees and locals. These take responsibility for supporting refugees, helping with accommodation, training and language lessons while jobs are provided by local businesses and the municipality. In Riace, the project for welcoming refugees was spearheaded by an enthusiastic mayor, Domenico Lucano, who envisioned and actioned the work in 1998
Migrants, Rural Communities
Cost & Value
The municipality receives $35 a day for each asylum seeker, which helps fund lessons, support for navigating the asylum process, training and employment
Running since 1998
Poor economic prospects have driven young people out of towns like Riace, where youth unemployment stands at 60%, and the same circumstances mean work opportunities for refugees are not plentiful
The arrival of migrants in southern Italy is breathing new life into towns that are struggling to survive in the face of economic deprivation and population decline.
Towns and villages on the far southern coast have been shrinking for decades thanks to the mass migration of young people, who leave their homes for better job prospects in the north of the country. It’s resulted in towns that are deserted, home to ageing populations that they struggle to support.
Another mass migration, however, is offering a solution as thousands of migrants and asylum seekers arrive from Libya to Europe, fleeing conflict and famine in their own countries or simply seeking a better life. While many areas of Europe have responded to the arrivals with xenophobia and fear, towns in Italy’s Calabria are embracing them with open arms.
Riace, the oldest and best established example of this kind of project, received its first group of asylum seekers, 218 Kurds who arrived on a boat from Greece, in 1998. Then, Mayor Domenico Lucano saw an opportunity and welcomed the newcomers, housing them in buildings that had been vacated by Italian former residents in the town.
Now there are people from 20 countries living in Riace, and the town that had shrunk from 2,500 to 400 people in less than two decades has been repopulated. Around 450 migrants now live there and 6000 have passed through the town. Its success has been replicated by surrounding villages, too. The nearby Satriano currently hosts around 21 refugees, in a population that’s shrunk 75% from 4,000 in recent decades.
Given that these towns were left by Italians because of a lack of opportunities, however, helping the migrants thrive in their new homes can be a challenge. The answer in Riace and other towns has been a mixture of work and support programs, financed by the European Union, and employment in jobs that local people don’t want to do. Many of the families of Calabria own small-scale farms and need labourers to pick the oranges and olives they grow.
Like other villages, Satriano receives $35 a day for the refugees it hosts. The money comes from the EU and the Italian government, being distributed by Italy’s Home Affairs Ministry. How that’s spent is managed by Mediazone Globale, a community trust owned by locals and refugees which receives about $221,000 of funding a year. The towns are also part of an Italy-wide network of municipalities called SPRAR, the Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.
The funding is used to finance integration efforts for the asylum seekers. Refugees might get Italian lessons, job training and help with asylum processes, as well as short-term apprenticeships with the municipality or local businesses. Individual migrants have worked in menial roles, as hairdressers and in factories. The organisation is also working to create job opportunities in small-scale industries using the skills of the refugees or what’s to hand in the region: jam-making, embroidery and crafts businesses are being set up, and local artisans are passing on skills to asylum seekers, keeping alive traditions that might otherwise have died out.
Refugees also receive vouchers for food stamps upon their arrival to ensure their immediate needs are met. These are only redeemable in the towns themselves and shopkeepers are paid back by the government as the vouchers are spent.
Still, the program isn’t easy. Though the village is well-integrated, with thriving relationships and friendships between the newcomers and natives, the economic challenges facing these rural communities is an issue. Many of the asylum seekers that settle in places like Riace soon move on from their new homes, heading for richer cities in Italy or other countries where there’s a better chance of getting well paid work.
(Picture: Flickr / Piervin Cenzo Canale)