ROME • Italy's interior ministry has ordered that all migrants be transferred out of a tiny southern town that had welcomed them but which triggered a national debate on integration after its mayor was arrested.
Mr Domenico Lucano (above), the left-leaning mayor of Riace, made headlines around the world for welcoming migrants to the sparsely-populated town in Calabria in a bid to boost jobs and development.
But earlier this month, he was placed under house arrest on charges of involvement in organising "marriages of convenience" for asylum purposes.
The mayor known as Mimmo has also been accused of skipping a tender process to award a rubbish management contract to co-operatives with ties to migrants.
His arrest was hailed by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his far-right League party as proof that the "government of change has declared war on the immigration business".
But it sparked an outcry from supporters who say the "Riace model" - funded since the 2000s with Italian and European funds - is a simple but effective way to both revive depopulated villages and house hundreds of asylum seekers.
The transferral of the migrants to other centres will begin this week, according to the ministry on Saturday, which has been investigating "clear irregularities" in the town's reception system since 2016.
The state gives small centres €35 (S$56) a day for each resident, with the bulk of the money spent on providing accommodation, food and language lessons. A small amount of pocket money is also given to the migrants.
Mr Lucano said his lawyers were preparing an appeal against the ministry, which has demanded a breakdown of all expenses.
"How is it possible to think of destroying the 'Riace model', which has been described by innumerable people, politicians, intellectuals and artists, as an extraordinary experience?" he asked.
"They want to destroy us," he added. "I am immensely bitter."
His migrant programme has seen abandoned houses restored and craft workshops reopened in Riace, attracting tourists, and has been lauded by many as a model of integration.
Mr Lucano was even named one of the 100 most influential personalities by Fortune magazine in 2016, and has inspired a docu-fiction by Wim Wenders.
Mr Salvini, who wants to reduce projects inspired by Riace and group asylum seekers in large centres, has seen his popularity increase since the coalition government came to power in June.