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article imageMigrant-supporting mayor arrested in Italy

By Fanny CARRIER (AFP)     Oct 2, 2018 in World

A mayor held up as a model for migrant integration in Italy was placed under house arrest on Tuesday accused of involvement in organising "marriages of convenience" for asylum purposes.

Domenico Lucano, the left-leaning mayor of Riace in southern Italy, has made headlines around the world for welcoming migrants to the sparsely-populated village in Calabria in a bid to boost jobs and development.

The 60-year old, known as Mimmo, is also accused of skipping a tender process while awarding a garbage management contract to co-operatives with ties to migrants.

Prosecutors released a statement Tuesday quoting telephone conversations in which Lucano promised an identity card to someone whose residency permit was no longer valid, saying that the law that prohibits it was "stupid".

He was also recorded strongly suggesting an undocumented Nigerian get married in order to get residency.

The mayor's arrest stunned some in Italy and reverberated around parts of Europe, where the "Riace model" -- funded since the 2000s with Italian and European funds -- has been hailed as a simple but effective way to both revive depopulated villages and house hundreds of asylum seekers.

"European cities must react! Barcelona with Riace!" said Ada Colau, mayor of the Catalonia city, who spent time in Riace this summer.

The immigrant programme has seen abandoned houses restored and craft workshops reopened in Riace, attracting tourists, and has been lauded by many as a model of integration.

Lucano was even named one of the 100 most influential personalities by Fortune magazine in 2016 and inspired a docu-fiction by Wim Wenders.

The hashtag #Riace trended on social media following his arrest and supporters and unionists called for a protest on Saturday in the village.

Anti-mafia investigative journalist Roberto Saviano denounced what he described as "the first step in the definitive transformation of Italy into an authoritarian state".

"Does it seem possible to you that the problem in Calabria, land of drug trafficking and corruption, is immigration?" he asked, stressing that Lucano's alleged crimes in no way personally benefited the mayor.

- 'Fake do-gooders' -

But Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party, slammed "fake do-gooders who would fill Italy with immigrants".

The League's coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, also declared on its blog: "Not one dime for Riace. The government of change has declared war on the immigration business."

Lucano's arrest follows on the heels of Salvini's security and immigration bill, which wants to cut back on small immigration projects inspired by Riace -- favoured by the former centre-left government -- and instead group asylum seekers together in large centres.

Small migrant centres currently receive 35 euros a day for each resident with the bulk of the money spent on helping create local jobs in fields such as social work, teaching and in services. A small amount of pocket money is also given to the migrants.

Salvini wants to limit the amount to 20 euros a day and scrap humanitarian permits to stay, which allow migrants to remain in the centres -- much to the concern of some towns and villages.

In Montesilvano, a sea-side town of 55,000 inhabitants on the Adriatic coast, centre-right mayor Francesco Maragno has supported the closing down of two large centres nearby -- "two ghettos" -- and the opening of smaller structures instead.

"People have begun to see the foreigners not as a problem but as an added value," Maragno told AFP, arguing that migrants were helping revamp the town.

In Prato, near Florence, left-wing Mayor Matteo Biffoni has no doubts: "We have a system that works and they are trying to make it fail".

More about Europe, Migrants, Italy, Arrest
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