Italian mafia caught pocketing aid for refugees

Migrants arrive in Italy by boat. [FlamencodiabloPhotography/Shutterstock]

Italian police last Monday (15 May) arrested 70 members of the powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia syndicate, after the gang pocketed €35 million in public funds, with the help of a Catholic charity organisation. EURACTIV’s partner Ouest-France reports.

In 2006 the Catholic charity Misericordia won a bid to manage the Sant’Anna refugee reception centre in southern Italy’s Calabria. This centre, one of the biggest in Europe, takes in new arrivals that arrive from across the Mediterranean on boats provided by people smugglers.

Misericordia outsources the feeding of the centre’s 12,000 occupants to local catering companies, which it pays using public money allocated by the government for this purpose. Between 2006 and 2015, the organisation received €103m: €35 per asylum seeker per day.

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€35 million black hole

But last Monday, Italy discovered that a third of this money had ended up in the hands of the mafia. The local branch of Misericordia had made a deal with a high-up family in the ‘Ndrangheta syndicate.

Some 68 suspected gang members were arrested, as well as two Catholic leaders, including one priest. The man of God is suspected of having “monetised his spiritual assistance” to migrants, pocketing €132,000, according to Italy’s anti-corruption authority.

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Mafia-owned catering companies “were paid to provide meals to 500 migrants, but they only provided half. Not only was there too little food, but it was generally the kind you would feed to pigs,” the prosecutor of Catanzaro said.

Worse still, according to the head of Italy’s anti-corruption efforts Raffaele Cantone, “this is only the tip of the iceberg”. Further investigation showed that public funds destined for the refugee centre in Lampedusa, the Italian island closest to the Libyan coast, had also been embezzled.

Since the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, Italy has been under intense pressure from migrants arriving by sea. Rome has budgeted €3bn for the hosting of migrants for 2017 and the EU released a further €13.7m of emergency funds, on top of the €500m already allocated for the period 2014-2020.

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“This mass of money has whetted appetites,” said the prosecutor of Catane. This magistrate has spent weeks investigating how NGOs charter ships to rescue migrants off the Libyan coast.

“These kinds of incidents confirm the bad image of Italy as a country that pockets the golden handshake and then gives the work to thieves,” one journalist at La Stampa said.

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