Migrants Revive Dying Italian Towns

Small towns across Southern Italy experience economic and social revitalisation after embracing and expanding refugee resettlement programmes

Despite Italy’s economic turnaround over the past few years, hundreds of once prosperous Italian villages have become ghost towns as young residents emigrate in search of greater economic opportunity in larger cosmopolitan cities and abroad. In 2016, nearly 2,500 rural Italian towns faced severe demographic decline and even extinction, according to Legambiente, an Italian environmental association. A handful of cities in the southern regions, however, have managed to slow and even reverse their moribund trajectory.

The secret? Locals attribute renewed vitality to the migrants encouraged to settle within their communities. More than just placating demographic woes, the overwhelmingly young migrant population fills vocational and livelihoods gaps that ageing Italian residents—unwilling or unable to leave—cannot. Migrants have managed to both fill and spur the creation of jobs, as well as bolster economic growth.

Italy has experienced a large uptick in immigration since the start of the Arab Spring and outbreak of Libya’s civil war in 2011. Italy’s Migration Study Foundation estimates over 690,000 migrants, largely hailing from Sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived in Italy by boat via the Mediterranean route since 2013.

Following the devastating Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013, which killed over 360 Italy-bound migrants from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ghana, the townspeople of Sutera recognised both a humanitarian imperative—as well as an opportunity for self-preservation. Located in the heart of Sicily, Sutera saw its 1970 population of 5,000 reduced to 1,500 in fewer than 50 years—a 70 percent drop. A welcoming initiative that began with the local mayor, Sutera started providing immigrants with free housing in abandoned apartments and matched them with local families to assist with community integration and asylum applications.  Compulsory Italian lessons poise migrants to repopulate vacant jobs— and they do, along with bakeries, butchers, and produce markets. Slowly, the newcomers have spurred job growth and are sending their children to the local school, which was on the brink of closure with fewer than a dozen students.

Legambiente, in partnership with the National Association of Italian Councils, found that one in seven Italians have vacated smaller towns for larger cities. Some two million homes were been abandoned over the course of 25 years leading up to the publication of this report. Copyright: Grischa Georgiew/

Locals and newcomers have accomplished more than mutualistic symbiosis in Sutera. The townsfolk have looked beyond integration to explore the unique cultures of the newcomers. The town has implemented various initiatives, including a summer festival that features cuisines, art, music, and dance of their new neighbours. Many migrants have, in turn, helped fortify withering Italian tradecraft and have eagerly taken up apprenticeships in pottery, glass mosaic artistry, and embroidery. Bearing witness to Sutera’s successes, neighbouring towns Mazzarino and Milena have adopted similar resettlement schemes, and still others are catching on.

But leveraging immigration for demographic and economic relief is neither a unique idea, nor particularly new. Riace, in eastern Calabria, has galvanised international attention and accolades for welcoming and incorporating migrants into its revitalisation schemes for decades. The perimeter of the city is adorned with signs that proclaim “il paese dell’ accoglienza”—the village of welcome. The town’s pre-World War II population dropped precipitously, from 2,500 to 400 by 1998—when the locals decided to open their doors to Kurdish refugees. Today, Riace is healthier, boasting a population of 1,500; roughly one in three residents are foreign-born, from over 20 different countries. Mayor Domenico Lucano, who was heralded by Fortune Magazine as one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” for his work resettling refugees, remarked to BBC, “There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here… It’s simple.”

Not everyone factored societal growth into their initial calculations when opening doors to migrants. For some small towns, revival by virtue of immigration is more incidental than intentional. One town over from Riace, Camini suffered heavy depopulation from years of intense poverty and a dearth of opportunity. The town had just 280 residents prior to taking in dozens of immigrants since the onset of the recent migration crisis. The leader of the cooperative, Rosaria Zulzolo explained, “We never thought [the influx of migrants] would be like a resource for us… We just wanted to receive people who were running away from war and offer them hospitality. And in this hospitality, we saw that shopkeepers were selling more goods, more work was being created.”

Of course, welcoming policies have not always been so readily embraced by locals. In 2016, townspeople from the hilltop town of Ripabottoni petitioned to prevent nearly three dozen migrants from resettling in their village—to no avail. Two years later, the 32 migrants are now woven into the fabric of the community, holding local jobs, singing with church choirs and providing crucial fresh talent to the town’s football team.

The townspeople petitioned again in January of this year; this time, over 150 of Ripabottoni’s roughly 500 residents petitioned and participated in rallies to decry the closure of the local migrant host centre. Some were signatories of the preliminary petition aimed at blocking the very immigrants they now defend.

Towns such as Sutera and Riace are among hundreds of municipalities in Italy’s Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (SPRAR) network. Designed to help local communities resettle and integrate their migrant populations, SPRAR’s work is premised on the notion of “accoglienza integrata”—integrated welcome. Through programmes developed by the Italian Ministry of Home Affairs, the Italian Government and European Union provide funding to local cooperatives dependent on the number of refugees hosted. As of February 2018 nearly 3,600 migrants have been helped across almost 360 different municipalities, with the highest number of funded projects coming out of Calabria and Sicily.

Italy’s demographic decline, compounded by ageing populations of remaining inhabitants and low birth rates, can spell a death sentence for localities, particularly in the historically poor South. Though far from a cure-all, accepting and integrating migrants is proving to be a restorative practice for many of the strikingly beautiful, but increasingly vacated, Italian towns. As frontline southern European countries like Italy, Greece, France and Spain continue to bear the brunt of Europe’s ongoing migration crisis – while calling on the bloc for support – these EU member states are also reaping the indirect economic benefits of growing populations.

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Tori Travers

Tori is a freelance writer focused on international diplomacy and forced migration. She holds a dual BA in Public Policy and Global Studies from the University of Virginia and spent the past year resettling refugees in the US and assisting asylum seekers in Greek island refugee camps. Currently, she lives and works in Geneva.

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