By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, June 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A villa seized from the mafia near Naples is to become a shelter for LGBT Italians and migrants who have fled discrimination in their home countries, in a bid to foster acceptance in Italy's conservative south, local officials said on Wednesday.
The mayor of Castelvolturno, a coastal town north of Naples, said a gay rights group had won permission to turn a three-storey building once owned by a local mafia boss into a centre for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
"We want to send a message of acceptance," the mayor, Dimitri Russo, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
It is the first time an asset seized from the mafia has been assigned to an LGBT group in Italy, according to Rain Arcigay Caserta, the organisation that will run the shelter.
Activists say homophobia and prejudice are widespread in Italy, which has also grown increasingly uneasy with the arrival of more than 600,000 migrants who have reached the country's shores from north Africa since 2014.
A new coalition government installed last week has pledged a crackdown on immigration, with the interior minister saying the country would no longer be "Europe's refugee camp".
The new cabinet has also drawn criticism from LGBT groups over anti-gay comments made by the newly appointed family minister, a staunch conservative Catholic.
The head of Rain Arcigay Caserta, Bernardo Diana, said LGBT asylum-seekers faced a double stigma, with many hiding their sexual orientation fearing rejection also from fellow migrants.
"They can't live their sexuality freely," he said.
Italy legally recognised gay couples in 2016, but remains one of the lowest scoring countries in western Europe for gay rights, getting only 27 out of 100 points in a 2018 survey by rights group ILGA.
Transgender people are particularly discriminated against and are often disowned by their families, especially in the south, Diana said.
He plans to house some of them with LGBT Italians who are rejected by their families in Castelvolturno, where about one in two people is a migrant, according to the mayor.
The villa is part of a group of houses near a lake that police seized from Naples mafia boss Francesco Rea in the late 1990s and have remained largely abandoned since, said Russo.
Rain Arcigay Caserta has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund renovation works hoping to create room for eight people as well as a job counselling centre and a space for cultural activities, Diana said.
Currently the closest LGBT shelter is located about 200 km (125 miles) away in Rome, he added.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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