Italian police accused a mafia-linked gang of controlling one of the country’s largest migrant centers. On Monday, police arrested 68 people linked to the operation, and charged them with skimming $35 million in funds destined to help new arrivals over the past decade.
Among those arrested was a Catholic priest who was paid almost $150,000 in a single year for providing “spiritual services.”
The arrests took place in at the Sant’Anna Cara immigrant center in Isola di Capo Rizzuto on the south coast of Italy. More than 500 police officers from Catanzaro, a city in the southern Calabria region, carried out the arrests, accusing the suspects of mafia association, extortion, carrying illegal weapons, fraud, embezzlement to the detriment of the state, and theft, according to a statement.
The police claim that Sant’Anna Cara, one of Italy’s largest migrant centers that can hold up to 1,200 people at a time, was run by members of the Arena clan, part of the powerful Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta mafia. The center is nominally run by a religious charity, the Catholic Misericordia association, which police said was a front for the mafia operation.
Investigators said “that the clan controlled, for profit, the management of the reception centre” at Isola di Capo Rizzuto and had been doing so for over a decade. Up to one third of the 100 million euro ($109 million) which the center received in state funding over the course of the last decade has been siphoned off by the gang, police say.
The head of the Italian parliament’s anti-mafia commission, Rosy Bindi, called the center “a money printing operation for organised crime thanks to the complicity of those who ran the centre.”
Among those arrested was Leonardo Sacco, head of the Catholic Misericordia association, as well as Edoardo Scordio, the priest paid 132,000 euro for “spiritual services” so far in 2017.
There are currently around 175,000 migrants living in camps like this across Italy, with the government providing food, shelter, Italian lessons and some small pocket money. However there have long been accusations laid against those running the Sant’Anna Cara center.
Two years ago L’Espresso magazine published an investigation which claimed that funds were being stolen and managers were making money by starving the migrants who lived there.
Officials the previous year had complained that the numbers of migrants living at the center had been grossly inflated to obtain more government funding, with one document putting suggesting the center was making 10,000 euros per day on these “ghost” migrants. In 2013, a health inspection found asylum seekers were being given small portions of out-of-date food.
This is not the first time the Arena clan has branched out into areas not typically associated with mafia operations. In 2012, Italian police seized assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars — including one of Europe’s largest wind farms.