Some migrants hosted at the CARA in Castelnuovo di Porto, where more than 70 people have been transferred to other destinations.Credit: ANSA
Some migrants hosted at the CARA in Castelnuovo di Porto, where more than 70 people have been transferred to other destinations.Credit: ANSA

Controversy is swirling in Italy over the closure of the CARA refugee center in Castelnuovo di Porto, just north of Rome, as well as the eventual transfer of the nearly 500 migrants currently housed at the structure.

The CARA refugee center in Castelnuovo di Porto, located just north of Rome, made headlines in March 2016 when Pope Francis visited it to perform the Holy Thursday ritual washing of the feet with 12 refugees hosted there. 

Now, that same center is facing closure, setting off political controversy. 

The center has been ordered to be completely cleared and closed by the end of the month, meaning that the 500 migrants and refugees currently living there must be transferred elsewhere. 

The city of Castelnuovo di Porto announced the news of the closure, explaining that "just over one month since the so-called security decree was enacted into law, it would seem the CARA is closing." 

'We are asking they not be treated like livestock'

The transfer of migrants began on Tuesday, and with it came controversy and concerns. "We are displeased and worried," Father José Manuel Torres of the city's Santa Lucia church told the Religious Information Service (SIR) news agency. "We are asking that they not be treated like livestock," he said. 

On Tuesday, the Franciscan Friars of Assisi cited the Gospel of Luke in a tweet to Interior Minister and Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio and Premier Giuseppe Conte: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)". Roberto Morassut of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) criticized procedures that he said have taken place "without sufficient advance notice, separating men, women, and children, in a way that recalls the Nazi concentration camps." 

Salvini responded in a Facebook video and a tweet. "Salvini deports children, migrants. Racist, fascist, Nazi ... cosmic lies. All the guests who were there and have the right will be transferred with just as much generosity, because if you are here to ask for political asylum, you can't demand to go to Cortina. If you have the right you stay, otherwise procedures will start for taking you back to where you came from," Salvini said. "We will use the money saved to help Italians or anyone in need," he said. 

Active for over 10 years, hosted as many as 1,000 migrants 

The center in Castelnuovo di Porto had been active for over 10 years and had hosted as many as 1,000 migrants. It was well-known for its integration projects. On Wednesday the first 30 guests were transferred to centers in Basilicata and Campania. Others left the structure on their own, some of whom were already seen on Tuesday morning waiting, along with their meager belongings, for buses to Rome. Among them was a 25-year-old Somalian woman who said she didn't know where to go. 

Interior ministry sources said the operation will bring savings of one million euros per year on rent, and was made possible due to the drop in the number of migrant boat arrivals. The sources said the closure was already planned as part of a project to empty out large refugee centers, as has already taken place in Cona and Bagnoli in the Veneto region. 

Meanwhile, the city of Castelnuovo di Porto came out in support of the refugees with a "peaceful solidarity march" that started at Santa Lucia church in order to "stand with the CARA guests who are being transferred, and the workers who risk losing their jobs". 

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