ROME — Many of the more than 50,000 migrants who have landed on Italy’s shores since January, and many more of the 174,00 who arrived last year, unwittingly became the cover for a massive corruption racket that included kickbacks, bribes and bid fixing run by the very people they trusted to help them.
Money allocated to clothe and feed the migrants, who risked their lives for a better future, instead padded the pockets of Italian politicians and businessmen who admitted that migrant scams had become even more lucrative than drug trafficking, according to wire taps and interceptions from a court dossier complied by prosecutors investigating the Mafia Capitale or Capital Mafia in Rome.
The latest revelations came over the weekend when Giuseppe Castiglione, Italy’s undersecretary for Agricultural, and five others were officially notified that they were under investigation for their alleged roles in procuring goods and services that were apparently never provided for the thousands of asylum seekers staying at the over-crowded CARA Mineo refugee center in Sicily, which is the country’s largest structure.
Last week, 44 people were arrested in the growing migrant mismanagement scandal, many of them accused of essentially stealing from the poorest and most desperate of the migrants. Women’s centers and even foster home centers meant to protect children are embroiled in the scandal, which has become somewhat like unraveling a spider’s web. According to the authorities, shell companies and Rome’s city government entities essentially fed off each other while those in charge reaped profits.
Giovanni Salvi, the chief prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, who is cooperating in the Rome-based investigation, described the level of corruption when it comes to how migrants are managed as “simply reprehensible.” Salvi, who has been investigating a series of migrant scam allegations in Sicily, says bribes “robbed the migrants of vital services.”
The migrant scam also allegedly included what was essentially the sale of migrants to centers in Rome that could not properly house them, so those centers could siphon off government funds allocated to those who take in refugees.
Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, defended Roman Mayor Ignazio Marino, who he says stumbled upon an intricate web of corruption when he was elected in 2013. “Could we have done more?” Renzi said. “Yes. Could we have realized what was happening sooner? Yes. But now we are doing something about it.”
The new accusations have bolstered anti-immigration political parties in Italy’s northern region, which have been looking for ways to justify a slew of anti-immigration legislation up for debate in Rome.
Roberto Maroni, the governor of the Lombardy region of Italy, said that in his region funds would be stripped from any communities accepting migrants, warning that anyone housing migrants, except with the purpose to escort them from the country, could also be fined.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, warned that if the local police step in to stop the migrant ban, his group was willing to raise arms to stop the migrants from being resettled. “We are ready to block prefectures and occupy all the buildings that some would make available to thousands of illegal immigrants at Italians’ expense,” he said over the weekend.
The governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, called the situation “a bomb ready to go off,” backing efforts to stop the resettlement of migrants. “The social tensions are absolutely crazy,” Zaia told AFP.
On Monday, Renzi told reporters at a G7 Summit in the Bavarian Alps that part of the problem was that Italy was saddled with the bulk of the migrant placement. “The EU migrant plan is not working,” he said. “We must acknowledge that the situation is all wrong, it is insufficient.”
Still, the exploitation of thousands of migrants during a period when there is no end in sight to the influx has understandably troubled refugee agencies. “It is despicable that often only the smallest part of funds destined for asylum seekers and refugees reach the intended recipients,” Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR’s regional representative for Southern Europe, said in a statement. “We thought such situations were caused by inadequacy on a local level. It is extremely worrying to learn that they often are caused by a wide and structured system of corruption.”