Reportage. Since January 2021, at least 89 people have been prosecuted across Europe for helping migrants and refugees. A two-day event in Riace shows the lasting impact of a small-town mayor’s open door policies.

The destruction of the Riace model spurred a global solidarity movement

The criminalization of solidarity is affecting all of Europe, and Riace is one of the symbolic places for this tendency. In the Calabrian village, a two-day event was organized in support of Mimmo Lucano and the Riace reception model, which was attended by a delegation of MEPs composed of Rosa D’Amato and Damien Careme from the Greens-Efa group and Cornelia Ernst from Left (part of the group supporting the former mayor of Riace, which numbers 60 MEPs), as well as activists and representatives of a number of NGOs and associations.

According to a dossier produced by the Greens group, between January 2021 and March 2022, 89 people have been prosecuted across Europe. Among them, 18 (four of them migrants) are facing renewed charges. In the vast majority of cases (88%), people are accused of “aiding and abetting the entry, transit, or stay of migrants.” Added to these cases are the nearly 300 people who were arrested between August and September 2021 for helping migrants illegally cross the Belarus-Poland border. Criminalization has also involved, and still involves, the denigration of NGOs.

“The European strategy has gone in two directions,” says Viviana Di Bartolo of Sos Mediteranee, who has worked as a rescuer for five years on rescue ships. “On the one hand, the maritime border has been externalized by giving authority to countries such as Libya, Morocco and Turkey, and on the other hand, those who perform rescues have been persecuted. We NGOs have gone from being the ‘angels of the sea’ after the October 3, 2013 tragedy off Lampedusa to ‘sea taxis,’ when in reality our activity has remained the same.”

Cornelia Ernst of the Left Group brought the “Black Book of Rejections” to Riace, a project documenting the ongoing violations that are taking place on the borders to protect Fortress Europe. It consists of two 1,500-page volumes, which document, through data provided by the Border Violence Monitoring Network and firsthand accounts, the violence suffered by more than 12,000 people at the hands of authorities at the external borders of the European Union, particularly on the Balkan route.

Furthermore, criminalization is not only directed against those who help migrants: “Harassment against those who defend LGBT rights or the environment is also on the rise,” explained Laura Renzi of Amnesty International. “In the last five years, there has been an exponential increase in online hate speech and ‘frivolous’ or SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) that aim to censor, intimidate and silence critical voices through judicial proceedings. These methods are increasingly being used against journalists as well.” This is a form of criminalization that affects the lives of the people subjected to the trials and the projects they pursue.

In Riace, the judicial affair involving Mimmo Lucano, sentenced by a first instance court to 13 years and 2 months in prison on a series of charges related to the management of projects for the reception of asylum seekers, has produced many effects. With the end of the Sprar projects, many beneficiaries have left the village, which has again become depopulated. However, according to Lucano himself, there have been some positive consequences as well: “The ruling has also led to good things. I have received awards in Italy and Switzerland, and a strong network of solidarity has been activated with organizations and associations throughout Italy that are allowing us to continue, albeit through all the difficulties.”

“Riace is a place of hope,” Cornelia Ernst emphasizes. “Lucano has been featured in the German media as a mayor of a small town that has become the capital of hospitality. Here, in Riace, one has managed to give so much with so little.”

Indeed, Riace continues to be “a destination for spontaneous reception.” At the moment, although without the presence of any active public project, there are about 50 people here from various African states and Afghanistan. “Those in need,” recount some of the village’s volunteers, “arrive by word of mouth, there are those whose reception projects have ended and don’t know where to go, and those who have arrived from Pakistan with a project run by the Jimuel NGO.”

Thus, the doors of the “Global Village” (the area of Riace where the homes of Italian citizens who have emigrated are rented to refugee families through an association) remain open.

Alice Pistolesi is an author of ‘Atlas of Wars and Conflicts in the World.’

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