A mafia gang in southern Italy has allegedly been stealing millions of euros intended for refugees, in a scam that involved a Catholic charity.
Police on Monday (15 May) arrested some 68 people, including a local Catholic priest, for siphoning off €32 million, reportedly of EU funds, over the past decade.
“Some €32 million went straight into the clan’s pocket,” said assistant prosecutor Vincenzo Luberto.
The money was intended to support arriving refugees at Cara “Sant’Anna”, one of Italy’s largest reception centres in Isola di Capo Rizzuto, Calabria.
Sant’Anna centre can hold up to 1,500 migrants at a time, with reports emerging that many were left hungry – as the staff did not cook enough meals.
L’Espresso magazine, which had published an investigation into the centre two years ago, found that managers were making money by starving the migrants.
“If the organisation was supposed to provide 500 meals, it provided 300 and the rest went hungry,” said prosecutor Nicola Gratteri.
An inspection in 2013 had also found that the centre was illegally hosting some 70 unaccompanied minors in aircraft hangars that had only two toilets.
Police in Catanzaro in a statement said that the arrested were “accused of mafia association, extortion, carrying illegal weapons, fraud, embezzlement to the detriment of the state, (and) theft.”
The mafia is said to have inflated the numbers of people at the centre in an effort to pocket state money for so-called “ghost migrants”.
An Italian prosecutor alleged that a local priest, Edoardo Scordio, who was also detained in the sting operation, had pocketed some €132,000 this year alone for “spiritual services”. The centre was run by the Catholic Misericordia association, which helped secure lucrative contracts to provide catering and other services to the centre. Police described Misericordia as “a cash withdrawal machine for the mafia.”
Misericordia also handles a migrant facility on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Arena clan behind the scam is part of the notorious Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta mafia.
Europol, the EU police agency, in a 2013 threat assessment said that the ‘Ndrangheta syndicate operates at a global level and is also found in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
The vast majority of people leaving north Africa to seek asylum in Europe end up in Italy.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says over 45,000 people have so far landed in Italy this year, out of a total of 53,000 arriving at sea. A separate police crackdown in Rome in 2014 revealed a similar mafia scam.