(CN) — Italy’s anti-immigrant government is seeking to end a small southern Italian town’s years-long celebrated effort to reinvigorate its dwindling population by welcoming immigrants and refugees.
Italian news media reported over the weekend that Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had issued an Oct. 9 order to shut down services for asylum-seekers in Riace, a small town in Calabria that has become internationally famous for welcoming asylum-seekers and helping them become an integral part of the town’s life.
Initially, Italian media reported that the interior ministry planned to move the town’s asylum-seekers. But on Monday, the ministry clarified that it would transfer only those asylum-seekers who choose to go. The ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The move to clamp down on Riace comes nearly two weeks after Italian finance police arrested its mayor, Domenico Lucano, on charges of aiding illegal immigration, in part by allegedly concocting “marriages of convenience,” and improperly awarding contract bids for trash removal in a way that helped immigrants.
By attacking Lucano and his Riace project, Salvini opened up his newest front in a highly public, and politically charged, campaign to stop asylum-seekers from coming to Italy. In this campaign, he has attacked groups and individuals who seek to help asylum-seekers and people fleeing war and poverty in Africa and Asia.
After taking office in June, Salvini barred nongovernmental ships that rescue asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean Sea from entering Italian ports. He came into office promising to deport as many as 500,000 immigrants.
In 1998, Lucano began making his small town of 2,000 inhabitants a welcoming place for asylum-seekers by giving them abandoned homes to live in and job training. Today about 450 asylum-seekers live in Riace.
In 2016, Fortune magazine lauded him as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders; his supporters say he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
On Sunday, Lucano invited Italian news crews into his house. He has been under house arrest since Oct. 2. Thousands of people across Italy have protested his arrest.
“I would do it all over again,” he told reporters about welcoming asylum-seekers. “I know I am on the right side.”
He added: “From the beginning I never accepted that the only solution for this land was emigration.”
Asked if the town’s population of asylum-seekers was going to leave due to the government’s actions, he doubted it.
“They’re not going. They’re not going because they have no place to go with the small children they have,” he said. “There are many of these families.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)