Thursday, October 6, 2016

Immigration Might Revitalize the Ghost Towns of Italy

Despite some Italians' Wishes, Migrants are There to stay

By: Sydney Albert
Produced & edited by: Madeline Keener

Thousands of ghost towns dot the Italian landscape - some have been abandoned for decades, while others are still visited by a handful of locals whose families once lived in them. Some were devastated by natural disasters and others by war. Some were depopulated as the residents moved away in search for a better life – a trend that is continuing today as Italy struggles with a stalling economy. 

Young Italians from the poorer central and southern regions of the country are flooding out of small towns, searching for better opportunities and education elsewhere.

There have been several attempts by private investors and volunteers to renovate and revive these villages, largely focused on saving the historic art and architecture that can still be found in these locations – several of the towns date back to medieval times or later. Other towns that have found themselves on the brink have received a breath of life from refugees.

The town of Riace suffered from emigration for decades. Decades ago residents started moving north to the bigger cities or overseas looking for work, and the more people left, the worse the little town’s state of affairs became. 

“In 2000 our school was shut because we had so few pupils. Now it's flourishing."

The success of Riace has gained the attention of other towns in need, as well as international recognition.
Migrants in Riace, Italy are helping the 
formerly depopulated village to flourish once more.
Photo Courtesy of Piervincenzo Canale via Flickr

The population had dropped by more than 80% when Domenico Lucano, a schoolteacher at the time, started welcoming refugees in 1998. Lucano proposed that Kurdish refugees who had arrived by boat stay and take over the homes and apartments left by former residents, and helped them integrate by implementing a “refugees welcome” project. Later elected mayor, Lucano has since been credited with saving his small town. “In 2000 our school was shut because we had so few pupils,” Lucano once told BBC News. “Now it's flourishing."

The success of Riace has gained the attention of other towns in need, as well as international recognition. Camini, a neighboring village that suffered from a similar case of depopulation, has also seen benefits from welcoming refugees that include filled classrooms and jobs created. German director Wim Wenders made a movie called “The Flight” based on how Riace and Badolato, another southern Italian town, opened their abandoned houses to refugees.

The Migration Trend is Causing a Strain on the Peace

Controversy and tension remain. Riace, Camini, and Badolato are all in the Calabria region in southern Italy, an area that in 2010 was host to violent race riots in the town of Rosarno. After the riots ended, local authorities in the town were criticized for ignoring the use of illegal immigrant labor and the poor conditions that the immigrants were allowed to live in. 

The Guardian reported that all remaining immigrants in the town were removed for their own safety in a type of “ethnic cleansing.” Local crime syndicates were pointed to as the ones responsible for exploiting the workers.

Established mafia gangs in southern Italy have long relied on cheap foreign labor for economic gain, and successful integration of immigrants threatens their access to such a workforce. Mayor Lucano has reported that he has faced intimidation for welcoming refugees, pointing out bullet holes by his front door. He told BBC News that the mob dislikes his integration model because they can see that it works and it challenges their grip on the region.

In addition to losing cheap labor, immigrants can also bring competition with them. Cosa Nostra, a Sicilian mafia group, has declared war on migrants in Sicily as African gangs have apparently started to operate on turf they formerly dominated.
69% of Italians surveyed by the Pew Research Center
had an unfavorable view of Muslims.

Photo Courtesy of Piervincenzo Canale via Flickr

Xenophobia is not limited to criminal organizations – several right-wing parties have led protests against what some in Italy are referring to as an “invasion.” The Northern League party, which has even been noted to stand against southern Italians for not living up to their standards of “whiteness,” is staunchly anti-immigration. 

Many Italians resent the migrants for taking up resources and feel that the migrants don’t give enough back. A recent survey by the PewResearch Center showed that 65% of Italians felt refugees were a burden on the country because they took jobs and social benefits.

When migrants are unwilling to follow certain procedures, such as having their fingerprints taken, the police do nothing, which is perceived as a result of “over-tolerance.” And then there are the stories of immigrants who threaten native Italians that are spread over Facebook and Twitter. 

The same survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 47% of Italians believed refugees were more to blame for crime than other groups, despite limited reliable data that would prove such feelings worthy of merit.

Despite the Negativity, Migrants Have a Friend in High Places

Refugees have found a powerful ally in Pope Francis. The head of the Roman Catholic Church has preached that accepting migrants and refugees is a moral issue, and after a trip earlier this year, he took 12 Syrian refugees back to the Vatican as an example. Religious groups have followed his lead – the Community of Sant’egidio has offered resources and taught language skills to refugees in Italy as well as the rest of Europe.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 131,974 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy since the start of 2016 alone, and more are coming every day. The Italian newspaper La Stampa has reported that 2,026 of the country’s 8,000 municipalities have hosted migrants as of June this year.

Italy is still trying to figure out how to handle the influx of migrants and refugees. With many young Italians seeking opportunities abroad, Italian journalist Maurizio Ricci believes that foreign labor and the integration of foreign families is crucial to maintaining the economy of a country with an aging population. 

Sylvia Marchetti, a freelance journalist based in Rome, has pointed out the abandoned towns that dot Italy’s landscape as a possible solution. Though many of the ghost towns need a lot of work, it might be beneficial to renew old accommodations rather than to build completely new ones.

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