What to do with Refugees: The Italian Model

Italy has faced waves of refugees longer than any other country in Europe. And it has developed ways to deal with them in the nearly 20 years it has had to handle the crisis, practically alone in Europe, no doubt making mistakes, but also achieving some notable successes.

At this point, one could speak of the Italian Model to Address the Refugee Question (IMARQ), a model other countries in Europe would do well to follow. And even the United States and Canada, countries with a long tradition and experience in handling migrants, could also learn something.

Recently Fortune included the mayor of a small town in Southern Italy among its 50 most influential leaders. His name: Domenico Lucano, he is the mayor of Riace.

Jeff_Bezos_-_The_World’s_50_Greatest Leaders_-_Fortune

In the Photo: Screenshot of the Top 50, World’s Greatest Leaders. Credit: Fortune magazine

In assigning him the 40th rank, well behind the Pope and Angela Merkel but ahead of Melinda Gates, Fortune magazine shone a light on the way Italians deal with the refugee crisis and had this to say:

“He offered them Riace’s abandoned apartments along with job training […] Though his pro-refugee stance has pitted him against the mafia and the state, Lucano’s model is being studied and adopted as Europe’s refugee crisis crests.”

He started helping out refugees in 1998 when he saw the first boatload of Kurd migrants land on the Calabrian coast – some 300 desperate refugees. And he had a brilliant idea: why not host them in the old town’s abandoned apartments? At that point, there were only some 400 people left of the original 4,000 that inhabited Riace forty years ago.  The town had been steadily losing its inhabitants – even though it suddenly hit world news in 1972 with the discovery in the near-by sea of ancient statues of Greek warriors, the so called “Riace bronzes,” sparking hope for revived tourism. But the statues were carried off to the provincial capital, leaving Riace to fend for itself.

All told, over the years, Riace has hosted a total of 6,000 refugees and immigrants.

The Roots of Riace’s Success

Thanks to Mayor Lucano’s inspired plan hatched with the help of the local priest, the migrants unexpectedly proved to be an economic opportunity. At first, 55 Kurds readily moved into 20 abandoned houses restored by “Città Futura” (the City of the Future), an association founded by Lucano in 1998 with the express purpose of sheltering refugees and helping them to find jobs – by 2001 Riace had joined the “national program of refugee reception” the government was putting in place.

Soon the refugees happily made their home of the apartments provided in the old town that sat on a hill, three miles from the sea (and from Riace Marina where most of the remaining local residents had found work, tending to a few tourists in summer).

Ateliers were created to teach the refugees artisanal techniques, including ancient ones like olive oil obtained from stone-pressing the fruit, sourdough bread, marmalade making, hand-made lace, wooden dolls in traditional costumes and weaving from little-used plants like linen and broom shrubs, and even pottery techniques brought by an Iranian migrant. Work was found and many stayed. A local currency – a “social bonus” similar to food stamps – was created to help immigrants meet their immediate needs like food and clothes, while shopkeepers shouldered the debt, waiting up to two months to be reimbursed by the state. All told, over the years, Riace has hosted a total of 6,000 refugees and immigrants.

Today in Riace, out of a total of 2,000 inhabitants, one-quarter are migrants and refugees, coming from a range of countries, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Palestine, Somalia, Mali and Senegal. Small businesses have popped up – ceramics, textiles, woodwork, glassware, chocolate, bread-making, even garbage-removal using a donkey-drawn cart – and, a bar and an elementary school have re-opened. The number of births outpaces the number of deaths.

In the Photo: The Mayor of Riace, Domenico Lucano

The Mayor, an ex-school teacher, is modest about his achievements, claiming he’s not sure how it happened. “Mine is a happy community, because integration is good for everyone. Long-time residents enjoy it, here schools and restaurants are re-opening” he said, “The refugees enjoy it, here they find homes and shops. The old, historical center of the town is reborn. And I’m happy to feel I’m useful, I don’t want a political career, I just want to help my fellow citizens”.

The following video gives a good idea of what he actually did and even though it is available only in Italian, the images speak for themselves:

In the Video: Presenting Riace and what its mayor has achieved. 

In this video, Mayor Lucano, a vivacious dark-haired man, in his late fifties (he is now 59) condemns the policy of turning away refugees – a policy amply that was amply debated in Italy, particularly at the time this video was done, in 2011, fully four years before it became a topic of conversation (and anxiety) in the rest of Europe; at the time, this was a courageous position to take. He explains that he is well aware and concerned that many of the jobs held by refugees are dependent on the financial support provided by the State and associations like his own; this is why, he says, he makes every effort to help migrants find independent jobs, even out of town (in flower culture, in nurseries, in construction and other small businesses).



He has also done something else that has long-term viability: He has launched what he calls “responsible tourism” to try and revive the old town – his association “Città Futura” rents out some restored homes to tourists, attracting school groups during the year and people from Northern Italy and abroad in summer. Visitors are happy to show support and share in the success of this experiment in refugee integration – some have even asked the mayor to marry them. And the “social bonus” currency, originally invented to support the migrants, is also made available to tourists for purchases in local shops with a 20 percent discount, as a way to sustain local business.

Two women talk as they sit in Riace

In the Photo: Two women chat on their doorstep – Riace November 21, 2013 Credit: Reuters/Rossi

Meanwhile, the N’dranghetta sought to control the town’s economic life, with its usual terror tactics – and that is what Fortune meant when they referred to the “mafia,” saying Lucano’s “refugee stance” pitted him against them. They even poisoned his son’s two dogs and shot through a glass entrance door to Città Futura’s offices. But, in large part thanks to the talk surrounding his “Riace model,” at both the national and international level, and his determination to make all their illegal moves publicly known, including through a series of murals painted on the town walls with the support of all the residents, Mayor Lucano has successfully resisted threats from the N’dranghetta and Riace is a town free from their hold.

A mural in Riace, a protest against the N'dranghetta Rando_Calabre_024_copie-2a648

In the Photo: (left) One of the murals of protest against the N’dranghetta on Riace’s walls: it shows a bleeding man and is accompanied by the slogan “Contro la ‘Ndrangheta, teniamoci le mani”  (Let’s Hold Hands Against N’dranghetta.)

When Wim Wenders, a major figure of the new German cinema, decided in 2009 to make a short documentary in 3-D (the only format he works in now) sponsored by the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR), he first went filming in Scilla. Then he visited Riace and asked Mayor Lucano for help in locating refugees willing to participate as extras. Lucano brought him Ramadullah, an 8-year old Afghan boy with much to tell – but the child was unwilling to go all the way to Scilla. Mr. Wenders moved his whole crew to Riace to finish his film, “Il Volo” (The Flight). He was so taken with Ramadullah’s tales and the people of Riace that he expanded the film from the planned original 7-minute short to a 32-minute documentary. It became a fiction hybrid, a first-hand account, with Wenders’ off camera narration, about what was happening to the refugees – “much more important,” said Mr. Wenders, “than the fiction I was making.”

Later, when he presented the film to the Berlin Film Festival, he noted: “In Calabria, walls are falling, walls that are more important than the one that fell here 27 years ago.”  Perhaps not more important than the Fall of the Berlin Wall that marked the start of a new era, but he’s not far off the mark, as the world needs to find ways to break down the barriers of race, discrimination and poverty.

In the Video: “Il Volo” a Wim Wenders film with Ben Gazzara, Luca Zingaretti and the child Ramadullah (2010)

But Riace is not the only town doing this. Satriano is another among many – they are in the hundreds – that have followed in the footsteps of Riace. But we’ll focus on Satriano which is in the same part of Italy: What is interesting here is the outcome of the story, still positive, but notably different, only 20 people have found jobs and stayed so far – not 100 as in Riace, and along with their families, that adds up to some 500 people.

The Case of Satriano

Yet the starting point was the same: Satriano, like Riace, had lost most of its inhabitants who had moved to bigger towns and even to northern Italy and further in Europe to search for work. Today Satriano is down to about 1,000 inhabitants from 3,800 in the 1950’s. But instead of spreading the refugees through town, assigning them restored homes and entrusting them with their maintenance, they were collected in a historic palace in the center, Palazzo Condò. The palace was restored by the local municipality and the refugees were not asked to maintain it.

They were essentially sheltered all together in a single place and not spread out through town.

Palazzo_Cond_SatrianoIn the Photo: Palazzo Condò in Satriano, after the restoration. 

Satriano, like Riace, works with SPRAR, the System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees.  Created in 2002, SPRAR is an outcome of signing a collaboration agreement with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) with the aim of establishing a national refugee program. It consists of a network of local authorities coordinated centrally by the government, the Ministry of the Interior – and here two organizations stand out: ANCI, the network of Italian cities and the Fondazione Cittalia that backstops ANCI with technical and monitoring support.

This is different from what Italy does when the refugees first land. Like in the rest of Europe, refugees are immediately housed in refugee camps, delicately called “reception centers” in Italian, basically shelters to attend to first needs (food and health, like on Lampedusa island) and identification; next, on that basis, they are sent to centers for expulsion of the “undesirable” or channeled to SPRAR structures for further support. There are 14 immediate reception centers across Italy and 5 expulsion centers, plus over 1,800 “temporary structures” to address surges of migrants. People stay in expulsion centers on average between 20-50 days and, unlike in other centers, they are not free to walk out. In 2014 (latest available data), about 93,000 people were sheltered in government structures. In principle, by Italian law, the process of asylum acceptance should take 30 days, in practice it takes 12 months. 58.6% of asylum demands were accepted in Italy in 2014 (latest available data), as against an EU average of 44.7% for that year (with a maximum in Sweden of 76.6% and a minimum in Hungary of 9.4 %).

Thus, in 2014, over 50,000 people obtained asylum in Italy. The numbers in 2015 are likely to have been in the same range.

In principle, in the SPRAR system, an “integrated reception” for them is guaranteed, going well beyond the mere provision of food and board. It includes “orientation measures,” legal and social assistance as well as the development of “personalized programs for the social-economic integration of individuals” – in short, education and job training. SPRAR’s network covers 376 municipalities and in the 2011-2013 period it funded 3,000 “places” (or centers) for three different categories of migrants: 2,500 for “ordinary” people (with no special problems), 450 for “vulnerable” people (unaccompanied minors, single women) and 50 for those afflicted with mental disorders.

For a full mindmap behind this article with articles, videos, and documents see #refugees

In practice, the reception capacity of “SPRAR centers” is frequently far from adequate and many face critical moments as they are repeatedly overwhelmed by refugee arrivals. The problem however, as Daniela Di Capua, the director of SPRAR’s “Central Service” recently explained on Italian television (RAI 3, February 2, 2016, Pane Quotidiano show), is that government funds have been “very limited in the past.”

There has been “some improvement” in the last two years, as the Italian government managed to mobilize the rest of Europe. Now, in principle, Italy should be getting €560 million from the 2.6 billion recently set aside by the European Commission for the next 6 years. But, as Ms. Di Capua  underlined, the refugee crisis is not a one-time emergency, it’s very nearly permanent, almost a “fixture of our time” as waves upon waves of migrants wash over Europe. The problem should be treated as a long-term issue.

In Satriano, refugees rely on the local branch of Mediazione Globale (MediaGlob), an Italian NGO headquartered in Lamezia Terme, a big town of Southern Italy. It is largely staffed by former migrants who have obtained Italian citizenship, including its president who came to Italy from Sudan in the early 1990s. MediaGlob locates jobs, helps refugees write asylum applications and generally manages the so-called “integrated reception” of the refugees. Palazzo Condò, the building where the refugees are housed, is also home to an old people’s residence, the idea being that retired people will have time to communicate and build relationships with the refugees, helping them learn Italian and local customs.

So far, it has worked.

A communal meal in Satriano Mediaglob picture

In the Photo: (left) A communal meal in Satriano, young refugees and old residents share food (Source: MediaGlob)

An Italian journalist, Simone d’Antonio who recently visited the town came back reporting that the refugees were integrating themselves successfully in the community. One refugee named Abdullah, from Mali, who had found a job cleaning the streets for the municipality, said “it gave me the opportunity to live in close contact with residents and feel better integrated here.” Still, if he gets his asylum papers, he planned to leave Italy and look for a better job in Northern Europe. The President of MediaGlob reported that other refugees who had already left and found jobs in the North told him they would return as soon as possible, to set up a bar or a restaurant or some other small income-producing enterprise – apparently they miss the warm Italian welcome…Unfortunately, so far, nobody has yet returned.

As demonstrated in Satriano’s case, the key problem in Italy is not the welcome but the lack of jobs.  Satriano receives from the Ministry of Interior €35 per day per refugee it hosts; this sum also goes towards financing jobs, provided the employer agrees to give on-the-job training. This of course raises questions about how such a complex system can be successful, avoiding corruption or mismanagement. Moreover, there is a risk it can give refugees a false sense of job security. All that has been found is a temporary occupation financed by the State and highly dependent on the continuation of State funding.

The Riace Model: Why it Works Better

It would seem that the “Riace model” is the better of the two: what it does is put refugees in the driver’s seat, giving them roots since they are expected to look after their own home; and they are happy about this – as several refugees explain in the video. The fact that the strategy starts with giving refugee families a separate shelter is not incidental, it’s a big incentive for them to look for a job and try and keep it, rather than wait for the State or a local cooperative or charity to sort the problems out.

The model empowers the people by giving them at the outset a minimum of dignity: their own home.

This is the reverse of a communal shelter like Palazzo Condò in Satriano that forces people to live together. Communal living has its strengths but everyone needs moments of privacy and a personal room to come to, a retreat from the world.

Finally, the Riace model is further refined with the issuance of a local currency that helps tide the migrants over in difficult moments, shifting the burden of debt onto local shopkeepers, better able to shoulder the risk. This may appear as a logistical trick, but it is not. For very poor people, it is important to reach the end of the month, and this is what that currency helps them do.

Refugees working in Satriano                                                 In the Photo: Refugees working in Satriano picking fruit.

The Limits of the Riace Model: Additional Action in Support of Refugee Integration

Italians have also devised other ways to reach out and help refugees adjust to their new environment, some of them important, others less so, yet all together they contribute to creating a friendly, supportive environment:

  • Projects aimed at unaccompanied minors and single women: clearly the Riace model is predicated on helping families; single women and teenagers traveling alone require special and a different kind of help. On average, some 35% of refugees arriving in Europe are teenagers, generally young men between the age of 14 and 17 and they, like single women, require special assistance. In Italy, official numbers are much lower, and reportedly some 12,000 unaccompanied teenagers arrived in 2015, a large jump (+67.8%) compared to 2013. By December 31, almost half of them were “lost”, that’s over 6,000 kids unaccounted for, a scary statistic that suggests a high level of illegal human trafficking of the worst kind. As we have seen, the number of “places” or shelters reserved to “vulnerable” categories in the SPRAR system is 450; and while it is a large number, it may not do enough or even be enough: too many children do not even enter the SPRAR system and there are sad stories in the press of young men having to struggle on their own once they have passed the age of 18 and find themselves out of the “place” that had once sheltered them; too often, they fall in bad straits, sleeping in the street, becoming the prey of drug pushers. Clearly, this is the tip of the iceberg and much, much more needs to be done.
Unaccompanied-MinorIn the Photo: an unaccompanied minor. Credit: West
  • Awarding fellowships to promising young refugees to study at the university or continue their interrupted studies; recently Pavia University awarded 14 fellowships, including food and lodging, to young refugees from 8 countries: Afghanistan, Cameron, Gambia, Iran, Nigeria, Togo, Turkey and Ukraine; they were selected on the basis of merit and languages known (English and Italian) and they all came from various SPRAR Centers around the country: Cassano allo Ionio (CS), Montalto Uffugo (CS), Trieste, Genova, Lodi, Ancona, Termoli, Asti, Torino, Alessandria, Cassano Delle Murge (BA), Villasimius (CA) and Trento. The fellowships will give many of them an opportunity to continue their interrupted studies.
Pavia University opening to refugeesIn the Photo: Pavia University The Library
  • A campaign to give books to SPRAR centers to stimulate an interest in Italian culture and spread knowledge among refugees; the initiative was launched in February 2016 by the Italian public television RAI 3 in a show called Pane Quotidiano, followed up by an active campaign on Twitter (hashtag #unlibroperaccogliere) to encourage people to send their favorite books to refugees;

Un libro per accogliere a book to welcome

In the Photo: Poster with RAI address to collect gifted books to be sent to SPRAR Centers
  • Relying on tech solutions: for example, a Telemedicine app, backed by a team of some 300 medics and nurses, to assist refugees or assistance to children born with malformation like the one provided by Sorriso.

First telemedecine app for migrants Sicilia_Emergenza_Sorrisi01-1 foto Luca Catalano Gonzaga

In the Photo: First telemedecine app for migrants. Credit: Sicilia Emergenza Sorrisi, Luca Catalano Gonzaga

Why the Italian Experience with Refugees is Different

The extent to which Italy has managed to integrate refugees makes the country stand out compared to fellow EU countries where the arrival of migrants has often been met with rejection and violence. Over one million people arrived in Europe in 2015 according to UNHCR data, and Italy saw 150,000 land on its coasts, some 20,000 less than in 2014.

Is the explanation that Italy has fewer problems because it is largely a “corridor country” where refugees rush through to reach more attractive destinations, particularly Germany and Sweden? According to that view, Italy would not have needed to develop structures and systems to integrate migrants the way Northern European countries have to do.

This is blatantly wrong. The fact is that at least one hundred thousand migrants, and probably more than that, are actually living in Italy at any one time, spread around from the south (the island of Lampedusa where so many land) to the north, though nobody knows exactly how many since they come and go. True, most want to leave, but a large proportion stays behind – the official numbers of legally accepted refugees are apparently paltry, but in practice, it is likely that many times that number are staying in Italy, probably a minority in SPRAR centers and a majority outside.

Perhaps a better explanation for the relatively high degree of acceptance of refugees – though here as elsewhere there are instances of rage and discrimination, but they are always isolated cases – can be found in Italy’s culture of compassion and charity, a culture nurtured for centuries by the Catholic Church that is still omnipresent in Italian life and politics. Here helping others is seen as a cardinal virtue. This is why in 2013, the Italian government, the first to do so in Europe, launched its “Mare Nostrum” initiative that eventually rescued 63,000 people.

In the Video: 2 Syrian brothers on being rescued by Mare Nostrum: 

In Italy, massing people in “refugee camps” is considered with horror and disdain, a throwback to uglier times, a reminder of Nazi concentration camps. Logistically, refugee camps may not be avoidable in a first moment to handle waves of migrants; but they need to be emptied as fast as possible, and that is something the Italians have become very good at. And the best way to empty them is to offer the migrants opportunities to live in a place they can call their own home, earn a living and have a dignified life, in short, the “Riace model.”

Recommended reading: “REFUGEES IN ISIS’ SHADOW” 

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Featured Image: Marcuscalabresus (Own work) CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons



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