Wim Wenders inspired by integration model set by idyllic town in Calabria

News Stories, 22 March 2010

UNHCR's Laura Boldrini speaks to some of the inhabitants of Riace.

ROME, Italy, March 22 (UNHCR) The picturesque Calabrian hilltop town of Riace on the sole of southern Italy seems to have a lot going for it; glorious weather, fields of fruit, mountain scenery, great food and the nearby Mediterranean.

Yet, in the 1970s and 1980s, people were leaving the region in droves and heading to northern Italy, other parts of Europe and even further afield, unable to earn a decent living back home. Riace was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. There were hardly any shops, the last bar had closed, nobody was working in the fields and there weren't even enough children to fill the local school.

Fast forward to today and the town is thriving, its solid stone houses echoing with laughter and happy voices, its mediaeval streets busy with artists, traders and tourists. But many of Riace's 1,700 inhabitants are not even from Italy.

Much of the credit for the turnaround in the fortunes of Riace goes to Domenico Lucano, who, working with UNHCR, has set an example of how integration can work in a country under fire for its tough immigration policies. Mayor Lucano came up with the brainwave of repopulating the town with irregular migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, the Lebanon and Somalia.

It's a story that has enchanted German film director Wim Wenders, who has made a half-hour documentary drama about Riace shot in 3-D. The premiere of "Il Volo" (The Flight) was held in Rome on Friday with the support of UNHCR, whose regional representative, Laurens Jolles, attended. "The film portrays refugees and migrant workers in a much more positive light," said one person who attended the screening.

Wenders, whose work includes the award-winning film "Paris, Texas" and the "Buena Vista Social Club" documentary, had first come to Reggio Calabria in September last year to film a short fictional story about migration in another nearby town, Badolato.

But he changed his mind after meeting some refugee children three Roma brothers from Serbia and a nine-year-old Afghan boy called Ramadullah who were living in Riace. Wenders decided to make something a bit longer, which would tell their story and that of the mayor and his vision for the town.

"I realized I was more attracted to the children's stories than to the one I was shooting," said Wenders, adding that real "people are always more important than fiction." The result is a moving documentary drama that could help people to understand the reality of immigration and how foreigners can contribute to Italian society.

Lucano, the courageous mayor, recalled how the transformation of Riace began 12 years ago. "A boat carrying some 250 Kurds [men, women and children] was brought by the wind to our shores," he said, referring to a boatload of people who had probably set off from North Africa in the hope of reaching Europe. "At the time, Riace was dying," he added.

The Kurds had landed close to the spot where a scuba diver in 1972 discovered the so-called "Riace bronzes" two exquisite full-size statues of bearded Greek warriors and briefly put the area on the map. "The wind has brought us a special cargo, and who are we to turn it away," Lucano thought at the time, reasoning that the refugees were simply following in the footsteps of Greeks, Arabs, Normans and other past visitors.

Lucano set up an association, Città Futura (City of the Future), which began offering migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers free board and lodging as well as electricity in Riace's empty houses so long as they agreed to work for a living and learn Italian. "The Kurds [eventually] went to Germany, but left their mark," Lucano noted. "Riace opened its doors to Eritreans, Ethiopians, Afghans and schools were able to reopen."

The newcomers have been repaying the faith shown in them by helping to revive the fortunes of Riace. The women make handicrafts while their men are involved in construction and opening shops; both are helping to bring in the tourists, who can now stay in renovated town centre buildings.

Today, about 250 of Riace's 1,700 citizens are foreigners. They include many Palestinian refugees resettled recently in Italy with the help of UNHCR after spending years living in dusty Al Tanf camp in the no-man's land between Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, Laura Boldrini, UNHCR's spokesperson in Italy, said the refugee agency was happy to support the example being set in Riace and other nearby towns. She also praised Wenders' film, saying that Il Volo was "a tremendous tool for awareness-raising that upholds a model of cohabitation based on exchange and mutual interest, both for refugees and for the development of local communities."

By Federico Fossi in Rome, Italy




UNHCR country pages

Local Integration

Integration of refugees in the host community allows recipients to live in dignity and peace.

Integration Initiatives: Supporting Next Steps

An inventory of opportunities and needs in the integration of resettled refugees

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Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

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Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

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Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

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Italy: Nightmare at sea

Ali's father calls him 'Miracle Ali. The toddler's parents along with 40-days old Ali who suffers from Down's Syndrome were onboard an overcrowded fishing boat when it capsized less than 12 hours after departure from Libya to go to Italy. The tragedy left hundreds missing, now presumed dead. The survivors arrived in Italy thankful but shocked by their ordeal.
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Nawaf, his wife and children are used to the sea, they lived by it and Nawaf was a fisherman back in Syria. They never imagined they would be boarding a boat that was a one way passage out of Syria. Nawaf was on the run after brief time in detention were he was tortured. By the time he release, he was blind in one eye. Now safely in Europe the family is looking forward to restarting their life in Germany, to having their 6-year old daughter go to school for the first time.

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Single mother Lamia had her own fashion workshop in Syria, she comes from a comfortable background but lost all her money in the war. Under the sound of gunfire she closed the workshop, took her two children and headed to Sudan in a lorry with dozens other people. She is now seeking asylum in Italy's fashion capital, Milan.