An Italian mafia group took over the running of one of Europe's largest migrant reception centres, using a Roman Catholic charity organisation as a cover to cream off millions in state funds, prosecutors said on Monday.
Police arrested 68 people in early morning raids in the southern toe of Italy, including a priest and the head of the local Misericordia association that manages the Sant'Anna Cara immigrant centre in the town of Isola di Capo Rizzuto.
The fenced-in centre can house up to 1,200 migrants, and members of the powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia managed to infiltrate the operation at least eight years ago, taking charge of key services such as catering and laundry, prosecutors said.
"If 500 migrants had to have lunch, just 250 meals would arrive at the centre. The other 250 would either have to eat in the evening, or else the next day," prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told a news conference.
“In the meantime the head of the Misericordia, the priest and their friends grew fat, bought luxury cars, flats and boats,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from any of those arrested. The Florence-based national Misericordia association said in a statement it had full faith in the judiciary and was placing the southern migrant centre under special administration.
Police sequestered goods and property worth €84 million in their early morning sweep. Some €200,000 was found at the house of one man who had declared annual earnings of just €800 to the tax man, Mr Gratteri said.
The head of parliament's anti-mafia commission hailed the operation. "The Cara of Isola Capo Rizzuto had become a money printing operation for organised crime thanks to the complicity of those who ran the centre," Rosy Bindi said.
“This operation shows the ability of the mafia to take advantage of the weaknesses and fragility of our times with its predatory and parasitic approach,” she added.
Police said many of those arrested belonged to the Arena clan of the 'Ndrangheta mafia – Italy's largest organised crime group which is based in the region of Calabria and is one of Europe's biggest cocaine importers.
The police statement said the Arena clan was also suspected of muscling in on the running of a migrant centre on the southern island of Lampedusa, which is on the front line of Italy’s ongoing migrant crisis.
Italy has been a destination for seaborne migration for years. More than half a million have reached Italy in the latest wave since 2014, mostly by boat from neighbouring Libya.
The government has set up reception centres across the country to take care of the new arrivals, which are run by private entities and charities.
The state spends some €16 million a year to house and feed the migrants at Isola di Capo Rizzuto.