Palermo to Europe: Leoluca Orlando’s Political Vision

May 14th, 2019

By: Harald Bauder, Ryerson University

Palermo was once known as the capital of the mafia. When Leoluca Orlando became Mayor in 1985, he took up the fight against the mafia. Today, he is widely credited for ridding this Sicilian port city of organized crime. Now serving his fifth term as Mayor – interspersed with seats in the European, the Italian, and the Sicilian parliaments – Orlando has turned his eye towards fighting for justice for migrants and refugees. His widely celebrated Charter of Palermo calls for freedom of mobility as a human right and the abolition of the residence permit in the European Union. We spoke with Orlando in his official residence, the Villa Niscemi, at the outskirts of Palermo. He explained that his fight against the Mafia and for refugees and migrants “are related to each other. Being against the mafia and being against the residence permit means having respect for human rights.”

This respect for human rights translates into a political vision for Palermo that revolves around inclusivity, equality, and diversity.

Orlando insists that there are “no migrants in Palermo. If you ask how many migrants are in Palermo, then I do not answer 100,000 or 120,000, but none. If you are in Palermo, you are a Palermitan.” Effectively, Orlando advocates domicile citizenship that includes all people that inhabit the city, independent from where or to whom they were born.

He vehemently opposes excluding people based on their origin or heritage. “May I ask what the difference is between your blood and my blood,” he questions, pointing to the veins in his arm. “It does not matter if my mother or father are Sicilian. I am a Sicilian because I have decided to be here.” He explains, “identity is the first act of freedom” that migrants make when they find a new home.

Orlando sees his city as a mosaic, consisting of diverse pieces that come “in different colors, in different dimensions.” What keeps this mosaic from crumbling is the frame of “respect for human rights.” This vision of inclusion applies to migrants as well as other marginalized groups, such as the LGTBQ+ community.

As a pragmatist, Orlando realizes that migration and diversity must go hand in hand with technological advances. Phrased in Orlando’s allegorical language, this means that Palermo’s “future has two names. One name is Google, or Alibaba or Facebook. The other name is Ahmed – the migrant. The first stands for virtual connections, the second for human connections.” By integrating migration, diversity, and technology, Palermitans will enjoy a just and prosperous society.

Orlando’s progressive political urban vision collides with the national politics of the current Italian government. Together with his counterparts, the mayors of Naples, Florence, and other Italian cities, Orlando has refused to fully implement Italy’s national asylum law at the municipal level. In turn, the Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, accused Orlando of civil disobedience.

Political threats do not intimidate Orlando, who was called the “walking corpse” when he risked his life in the fight against the mafia. In early April, Orlando invited the German rescue boat Alan Kurdi carrying 64 refugees to enter the harbour of Palermo, although Salvini denied the boat and its desperate passengers admission.

Orlando’s oppositional politics has been endorsed at the highest spiritual rank. He points to a picture of himself with Pope Francis that is displayed on a bookshelf in his office, explaining that he received a letter “about migrants” from the Pope: “When Minister Salvini said, ‘I will send the army against Orlando’, then the Archbishop [of Rome] said it is a duty to be against this law. And he said we have to organize resistance,” Orlando recounts, chuckling at the Pope’s approval. Although Orlando is highly critical of the European Union’s migration policies, he knows that the current crisis of dealing with migration cannot be solved by returning to nationalism but must be addressed that the European level. Arguing that Salvini’s Decree tramples on human rights, he shouts: “I’m for Europe – for Europe – FOR EUROPE!”

Today, major European municipalities, solidarity networks, and safe-harbour initiatives are endorsing the Charter of Palermo, and with it Orlando’s political vision for Europe.


Harald Bauder is a Professor at Ryerson University and a Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies. He thanks Judith Gleitze and borderline-europe for helping arrange the interview, which took place on 14 March 2019. The original interview in German is available at FluchtforschungsBlog.





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