Pro-social identities and hospitality towards migrants: lessons from a small Southern Italian town that opened its doors to refugees
In the summer of 1998, 300 Kurdish refugees landed at the Ionian coast and received help from the local inhabitants of Riace, a small Calabrian town. Ever since, refugees have been hosted in houses that were abandoned by local emigrants looking for work abroad or elsewhere in Italy, and leaving behind an impoverished ‘ghost town’. Over time, local NGOs and the municipality have developed a comprehensive settlement programme for up to 400 refugees at a time. Refugees, in turn, bring new life into this once-dying town, and the settlement programme is combined with projects aimed at the socio-economic revival of the local community . Curious to find out whether the welcoming attitude towards refugees (Sasso 2012) was genuine and how the support for them was generated, the first author of the Identities article, 'Local identity and the reception of refugees: the example of Riace', decided to live in one of the abandoned houses for a period of 5 months.
Through the ethnographic fieldwork of the first author, we soon found out that there are various economic, demographic and political factors underpinning the success of Riace’s reception programme. The article being discussed aimed to examine how the people in Riace created and enact a local identity of hospitality. In the article, we analysed the type of ‘identity work’ that the Riace inhabitants and local leaders are involved in. Far-right politics and anti-immigration parties often present refugees as a threat to the local identity due to their different cultural or religious background, and a strong national identity regularly goes together with the rejection of newcomers (Bansak et al. 2016). Theoretically, social identities are often conceptualised in terms of group boundaries and processes of boundary drawing (‘who belongs to us’; Wimmer 2009), but they also deﬁne speciﬁc norms, values and beliefs of ‘who we are as a community’. The case of Riace shows that when the content of the local identity is pro-social and a community deﬁnes itself in terms of hospitality, community members are inclined to act, think and feel in that way (Reicher et al. 2010). In agreement with this ‘social identity perspective’, our research demonstrates that a strong local identity can go together with the inclusion, instead of the exclusion, of newcomers.
Historical narratives form the core of Riace’s pro-social identity. People explain their hospitality as a continuation of the town’s traditional welcoming attitude and emigration history, which would make them understand what it feels like to migrate and to receive newcomers within their community. Locals use such narratives as a rhetorical resource to further stimulate the enactment of the local identity of hospitality, for example through family tales, artwork and activities. Furthermore, the local leadership has played a decisive role in promoting and upholding the local identity. The mayor  also motivated locals to participate in the refugee integration programmes, which in turn promoted the idea amongst inhabitants that the programmes reflect local pro-social norms (Haslam et al. 2011). There are still some challenges to the future of Riace as a town of hospitality that relate to available ﬁnancial resources and competition over local opportunities.
The three periods of ﬁeldwork by the first author in 2015 (5 months), 2016 (2 months), 2017 and 2018 (2 months) made it possible to develop close relationships, which resulted in locals expressing not only the popular image of Riace but also being more critical regarding, for example, alleged corruption in the local refugee organisations. It was crucial to build rapport as the presence of a foreign researcher studying the ‘successful Riace-model’ can affect the responses of locals. A practical implication of this research is that policies aimed at developing a strong local identity can go together with the inclusion, rather than exclusion, of refugees.
Many (Western) governments currently face the challenge of accommodating refugees while preventing anti-refugee attitudes, racism and xenophobia. While they increasingly seem to opt for stricter immigration policies, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) statistics show that this has not stopped migrants from (illegally) moving to Europe (IOM 2018). Our analysis indicates that it is important to develop a pro-social community identity in which the reception of refugees is not perceived as an identity threat, but rather as a reflection and continuation of ‘who we are’. The successful appeals to a national identity of solidarity and tolerance in Bulgaria (Reicher 2006), Portugal (Vala et al. 2008) and the Netherlands (Smeekes et al. 2012) indicate that this strategy can also work in other settings. Moreover, refugees seem to feel more accepted in settings characterised by pro-social norms. The welcoming image of Riace did, for example, attract refugees living in other towns and asylum centres to move there independently after hearing positive stories within their (informal) social networks (Driel 2018).
 In the restoration and sustainability projects, refugees and Italians collaborate to improve the local infrastructure and architecture and to create well-functioning public services such as the garbage collection, all in environmental friendly ways. In the ‘Laboratorio’ or shops, traditional Calabrian handicrafts are produced by refugees and local Italians together. There are for example shops for dressmaking, joinery, pottery and glass-blowing. Finally, the solidarity tourism combines volunteering and tourism in order to stimulate the development of the local community.
 Between 2004-2018 Mayor Domenico Lucano was re-elected 3 times, the legal maximum period in Italy. In 2019, after the fieldwork period, a new local government was installed (https://elezioni.interno.gov.it/comunali/scrutini/20190526/scrutiniGI180670640).
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Blog post by Ester Driel and Maykel Verkuyten, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Read the full article: Driel, Ester & Verkuyten, Maykel. 2019. Local identity and the reception of refugees: the example of Riace. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1611075
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