From the centre of the Mediterranean: “Freedom of movement as a human right”

A conversation with Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo.

In its many historical and cultural stratifications, and their architectural and artistic projections, Palermo is an exemplar of metissage: a cultural melting pot far from linear and predetermined. This is a city that has seen an unbroken sequence of encounters and clashes, conflicts and coexistence, trade and war, oppressions and mutual recognition.

Comprising almost 700,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area that exceeds one million, the capital of Sicily is a place of many contradictions. A distillation of the contradictions of a large island in the centre of the Mediterranean, with all the positive and negative values that this has historically led to and which are even more evident today.

An example of this are the specifically Sicilian problems regarding the relationship between capitalist development and underdevelopment, within an Italian unitary state that has only 150 years of history. With these themes in mind we began a conversation with Leoluca Orlando (mayor of the city preparing to run for new elections this weekend) about the heavy conditioning that the mafia phenomenon has exerted and the influence that it, in some respects, continues to have on Sicilian society and urban life in Palermo.

A 70-year-old lawyer specializing in “regional public law” with a significant period of studies at Heidelberg, Orlando was one of the “young, brilliant promises” of Italy’s Christian Democrats. He broke up with the “party-state” when his political mentor Piersanti Mattarella, then president of the Sicilian Region and senior brother of the current president of the Italian Republic, was assassinated by the mafia in 1980. It is obvious that accomplices and political instigators of the murder should be sought in those areas of the Christian Democrat leadership that are organically linked to mafia power.

From 1985 to 1990, Orlando was elected as mayor for the first time. This was the “Palermo Spring”, during which he governed with a left-oriented city council, breaking the political practices of the past, fighting the criminal economy and supporting the growth of a strong anti-mafia movement. In 1991 he finally left the Christian Democrats and founded the “Rete” (the “Network”), a cross-political force anticipating, with its denunciation of corruption, the crisis of the traditional forms of representation and of the whole structure of the so-called First Republic. In the aftermath of the mafia massacres and in the first direct vote, he was elected mayor again in 1993. He revised the whole public service procurement system, up to then controlled by mafia “families”, and promoted a renewed “culture of legality” with strong social characteristics. He was then re-elected for a third time between 1997 and 2000.

After a long political career in the national and European parliament, in 2012 Orlando became the leader of an independent  civic coalition which defeated (with 74 percent of votes) both the centre-right and centre-left. He is not, therefore, a “new” figure, emerging from the most recent social movement season, but a strong personality whose history is undoubtedly dominated by breaking traditions and by a continuous and obstinate challenge to the dominant power structures.

Talking about the epoch defining phenomenon of migration, can we start the conversation by discussing this in relation to Sicily, and specifically your city Palermo?

Palermo is not a European city. It’s a Middle Eastern metropolis in Europe. It’s not Frankfurt nor Berlin, with all respect to them. We are proud of being Middle Eastern and we are proud of being European. Palermo is Istanbul, it’s Beirut. Our mission is to be a Beirut with a fast over-ground metro, to be an Istanbul fully serviced by public and free wifi.

We are a community that was born as a “migrant city”. We are a city that UNESCO has declared Heritage of Humanity for its Arabic- Norman dimension. Arabs and Normans have fought and would fight each other, but in this place they have mixed together and merged their culture. This is reflected in our architecture and also in our lifestyle. This is the history of the city, before that fateful year of 1492 that destroyed the Mediterranean world with the colonization of America, the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent which marked the end of the Renaissance, and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims by the Spanish royal family. From that moment onwards, the Mediterranean went from being the “Ocean on the world” to being a peripheral lake.

For a hundred years, between the 19th and 20th Century, we have been a city of migrants heading towards America and Northern Europe. For a hundred years, the mafia (who I call the “Sicilian ISIS”) made us racist and fundamentalist, impeding us from becoming a landing point of other migrations. For years the mafia has directly governed over Sicily and Palermo. When in 1980 the mafia and Christian Democrats (which were the same thing) killed Mattarella, many of us swore to defeat this phenomenon. The trend has started to revert on itself. Back then we were the “city of law”, where demanding respect for legality was a “subversive” claim compared to the dominant power.

Today, facing the epochal challenge of migration, we now are a “city of rights” where it would instead be a treason to comply with current laws.  Today we are the most advanced Italian city because we have started “further back”. We have experienced the tragic and tiring journey to attain legality against organized crime, and today we want to be the reference point for the effective exercise of civil and social rights. We organised the biggest Gay Pride in Southern Europe: 300,000 people, families and kids in the street, people applauding looking outside their windows. It is thanks to migrants that we have recovered our story and our harmony: we have finally gone back to being a “Middle Eastern city in Europe.”


The Arab-Norman architecture of Monreale’s Duomo. Flickr/Some rights reserved

What is the meaning of the “Charter of Palermo”, the statement of principles and intentions that you launched in March 2015?

My life, and my point of view, changed when I first met migrants directly. Right now, there are all the conditions for instructing a new “Nuremberg trial” against European states for their part in the new genocide which is in progress.

This is a genocide that is not committed against the law, but which is actually caused by laws themselves. Exactly like with Nazism. It is impossible to block the displacement of millions of human beings. The phenomenon is connected with globalization, long-term economics and political crises. For this reason it is necessary to avoid chronic emergencies. And the starting point for a new vision can only be the recognition of migrants as people. Even the badly-understood concept of “security” must be subordinated to this approach.

We must radically change the lenses through which we look at migratory phenomena. I propose we abandon the two main current approaches that are mutually dependent, the humanitarian one linked to the idea of “suffering” and the security focused one linked to the idea of “protection.” Migration problems can and should find their solution within the affirmation of “freedom of movement” as the new inalienable right of humans. No human has chosen or chooses the place where they were born. Everyone should instead be recognized as having the right to choose where to live, the right to live better and not to die.

The real problem is the logic of the “residence permit”: we will be prosecuted for this one day. The “residence permit” is contemporary slavery, the new death penalty, the piece of paper that plunges thousands of people into the Mediterranean. Getting rid of slavery has been a long process, but there is no alternative to fighting it. “Residence permits” must be abolished. Beyond this, the distinction between the “asylum seeker” and the “economic migrant” based on the policies of European countries makes me shiver. What is the difference between those who are likely to be killed because their country is in war and those we are likely to starve? I want to delve into this criminal logic for a moment: if I have a right to asylum, why can I not buy a plane ticket and get to Europe regularly, landing in Berlin or Rome or Madrid? The proposal to outsource the right of asylum, its management to African countries or to Turkey, and creating camps is unacceptable. Instead, it is necessary to create guaranteed arrival paths, as real humanitarian corridors.

In the last two years Chancellor Merkel has made a mistake: she stopped. After opening the doors to refugees, she was afraid of losing consent. When you choose this road you have to go on without hesitation. You cannot start discriminating. You cannot distinguish. There is no in-between solution. Otherwise voters called to choose between the original and its copies will always choose the original. I do not want to be the faded copy of Frauke Petry or Matteo Salvini among the worst securitarian right wing forces on the continent. This is, unfortunately, a debate that cuts across all the political forces, including those on the left. It is not possible that the only one who still has a solid internationalist vision is the pope. Because all this requires is a cultural, civilised choice.

How, concretely, does the Municipality of Palermo lead by trying to translate these principles into local politics? Or is there only room for purely symbolic gestures?

I am, legally, the father of 1200 unaccompanied minors, many of whom have had dramatic life experiences comparable to those of a forty-year-old. I chose for them to be given to me in custody. I am also the father of 200 children from Palermo of Italian nationality, removed from difficult family situations and supported by social services.

Every time a ship arrives in the port of Palermo with migrants stranded in the Mediterranean, I am present to welcome them. On such occasions the harbour becomes a model of civil organization, everything works to perfection, associations and institutions together. Over the years I have obtained from the Chief of State Police the guarantee that the area will not be militarized, that the immigrants at the time of landing will not see a single uniform, neither police nor military.

The difficult phase starts afterwards: health and education, housing and jobs must be secured for everyone. Migrants and indigenous Palermitans often find themselves in the same condition of unemployment or precariousness. And together we try to face it. All this works only thanks to the close relationship we have with local networks.

If the guiding principle for us is that of a new citizenship, the right to active political participation and ‘cultural contamination’ is paramount. In Palermo we have created a “Forum of Cultures”, a permanent representative body as a concrete application of a model in which citizenship rights are exclusively related to residence and not to nationality.

You have recently attended a meeting of European mayors in the Vatican, organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the initiative of Pope Francis. What conclusions did you reach?

It was an important encounter, in some ways a surprising one for a Catholic like myself who often criticizes the Church as an institution. The role that this pope is carrying forward is extraordinary. So is his acknowledgment of every battle, including our “intelligent and courageous activity in favour of our brothers and sisters who are refugees” , as he has defined it in a personal letter to me.

It was fundamental in that meeting to have a real exchange with municipalities throughout Europe, particularly Madrid and Barcelona, that have put in place an extraordinary, associative and institutional effort to qualify themselves as  “Cities of refuge.” Unfortunately they clash with the open boycott and closure policies of the national government which is not respecting the commitments for the resettlement relocation of refugees from Greece and Italy taken on at the European Council.

This is one of the reasons we are committed to the goal of building a network of mayors, or rather a network of cities that are able to propose and implement on their own a policy of reception, one that is different from those of national states and of the European Union. A network that may also involve mayors on the other side of the Mediterranean, African and Middle Eastern countries, beyond the formal boundaries of the Union.

European legislation, such as the Frontex and Dublin Regulations, must be profoundly changed: the right to free movement of people, even for non-EU citizens, has to be guaranteed throughout Europe. Furthermore, the reception system has to be transformed: in Italy the situation is critical due to the patronage system created by businesses and the great concentration that hurt migrants and entire local communities. There’s a need to invest everywhere in a dignified and widespread reception, as self-organized as possible.

That is why I say: we must start from the local territories. From cities. Beauty is local. The fundamental values are embodied here. The national state, on the other hand, is a closed space. The European Union is not functioning precisely because it has become a place for legitimizing national selfishness. For the younger generations all that exists is the neighbourhood and the world. What’s in the middle is an obstacle to happiness, an impediment to being oneself. Migrants helped us question that idea of state, as Europe’s constituent fathers began to after the war. The construction and choice of one’s identity is the greatest act of freedom of every single person, I say as Gadamer’s pupil. My “homeland” is where I decide it is.

We must overcome the timidity of many mayors who are too attached to their own parties. I am an independent. You also have to get rid of political and material constraints. Four years ago, the budget of the City of Palermo was close to bankruptcy, as a result of both austerity policies and bribery. We have revitalized it, without even one layoff, maintaining total public control over the management of essential services and common goods. But the dictatorship of financial rigidity must end. The direct relationship between cities, their ability to build alliances, can produce ruptures and concrete experiences that show an alternative path.

This article was translated from the Italian by Elena Silvestrini and was published in LuXemburg.


Giuseppe Caccia
He graduated in Philosophy (University of Padua), Ph.D. in European and Euro-American Political Studies (University of Turin), scholar in History of Political Thought, works for several international research institutions; from 1997 to 2014 was councillor and from 2001 to 2005 deputy mayor for Social affairs in the City of Venice; member of political-cultural Association “in comune” (Venice); is active in Italian and European social movements and participates in EuroNomade independent research network.