MILAN — For more than a decade, Domenico Lucano has fought to keep the poor depopulated southern Italian village of Riace alive. As the village mayor, he invited migrants and asylum seekers to move in and fill the void — and it worked.
Hundreds of migrants now live in Riace, which sits in the hills of Calabria, one of Italy’s poorest regions. They make up roughly one-fourth of the village’s population, and the influx of children has enabled Lucano to keep Riace’s school open.
But on Tuesday morning, Lucano was arrested for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Lucano’s supporters fear his detention might be politically motivated: Italy’s right-wing populist government has vowed to crack down on immigrants and those who help them, portraying them as criminals. Earlier this year, authorities arrested and tried members of migrant-aid groups for aiding illegal immigration, though the aid workers were acquitted.
Lucano is a particularly high-profile target for immigration opponents. His experiment has been praised by the international media and even inspired a short film. Lucano himself was listed as one the world’s 50 greatest leaders in 2016 by Forbes magazine.
Over the past few months, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, an immigration hard-liner, has attacked Lucano as a symbol of pro-immigration policies, and he was quick to praise Lucano’s arrest on Twitter. “I wonder what all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants are thinking now," he wrote.
Lucano has been charged by the Luigi D’Alessio, the chief prosecutor of the nearby city of Locri, of aiding illegal immigration by “arranging marriages of convenience between local men and foreign women," according to the Agi news agency. Lucano is currently under house arrest.
D’Alessio told The Washington Post by telephone Wednesday that “we are still at the early stages of the investigations" and that it’s not yet clear if Lucano will face trial. D’Alessio said he requested Lucano be put under house arrest because he feared that, as a mayor, he could tamper evidence.
Many liberal commentators view the arrest as a form of punishment for Lucano’s migrant-friendly policies. “The government has begun transforming Italy from a democracy to an authoritarian state,” wrote Roberto Saviano, a well-known left-wing writer, in a Facebook post.
D’Alessio denied that the investigation and the arrest are politically motivated: “Our job is not to pass a judgment on the Riace program or on [the merits of] hosting migrants. The investigation is about assessing whether there were irregularities in the way this program was applied."
The deputy mayor of Riace, Giuseppe Gervasi, who is acting as a spokesman for Lucano, declined to comment on the motivations behind the arrest. “It’s a delicate situation, but we’re optimistic and we’ll continue doing our job," he said.
Lucano has been the mayor of Riace since 2004. He came up with the idea of welcoming migrants to the village in 1998, when he heard news about a boat full of Kurdish refugees who had reached the coast of Calabria. Riace had plenty of empty houses, which had been abandoned by locals, and the local government would receive 35 euros per day per asylum seeker from the Italian government while their claims were adjudicated. He began implementing the plan as soon as he was elected.
The experiment was a success: Some of the asylum seekers and migrants decided to stay and build lives in Riace, opening shops and restaurants and sometimes marrying locals. The village now hosts about 600 migrants from 20 different countries, including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq, according to the newspaper La Repubblica.
Many other towns and villages in Calabria, where youth unemployment exceeds 55 percent, have seen a massive brain drain as young people move north to wealthier parts of Italy or leave the country entirely. Rather than become ghost towns, at least four other villages have adopted Lucano’s plan themselves.
This article has been updated with comments from Luigi D’Alessio and Giuseppe Gervasi.