Domenico Lucano, who has been mayor of the Calabrian town of Riace for eight years, has also been accused of fraudulently allocating rubbish collection services to two companies as well as organising “marriages of convenience” between local men and foreign women for immigration purposes.

Lucano’s partner, Tesfahun Lemlem, faces the same charges and has been banned from residing in the town.

Lucano, also known as “Mimmo”, was arrested on Tuesday morning amid a government inquiry into the allocation of funds for refugees in the town.

The investigation against the mayor began in November 2017.

Authorities wiretapped a conversation between Lucano and Lemlem in which they discussed helping a Nigerian woman who had been denied a stay permit three times.

During the conversation, Lucano reportedly said that arranging a marriage between the woman and an Italian citizen was “the only way forward”.

In 1998, Lucano started a unique program which welcomed migrants to the desolate town of Riaci, whose population by 2004 had dropped to 500 from around 3000 before World War II.

The program offered migrants abandoned homes and on-the-job training, in the hope that the new arrivals would repopulate the town and revive its economy.

Since the program began, thousands of migrants have resided in the town, and today, around 500 make up its population of around 1500.

The program has been internationally praised as a model of integration, and saw Lucano named one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine in 2016.

Lucano’s arrest comes after Italy’s new populist government recently adopted a hardline stance on migration, including closing off the country’s ports to migrant rescue vessels.

Many have expressed their support for the mayor since his arrest.

“It started with NGOs saving lives at sea. Now it’s the turn of those who do it on land,” Neapolitan anti-racism group Associazione 3 Febbraio said in a statement.

Riace locals have rallied together in solidarity with Lucano.