The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has just released new findings on corruption in the EU. One of the areas where corruption was discovered to be rife was in the field of migration, particularly in Italy. The country links the misuse of funds to notorious organized crime networks and public officials.
A muffled phone call takes place in the Italian capital Rome. “Do you have any idea how much money you can earn from immigrants? Do you have any idea? Any idea at all?” says a male voice. He answers his own question: “It will bring in more money than drugs!”
These now famous words form part of an intercepted telephone conversation in Italy released to the newspapers in 2014. The Carabinieri, the military arm of the Italian police, say the conversation took place between two suspects in an infamous trial against several defendants dubbed “Mafia Capitale” (Mafia Capital) which looked at corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering, bribery and conspiracy using money destined for Rome city services, including services for migrants and refugees. The person who spoke these words is alleged to be Salvatore Buzzi: already a convicted criminal, he was sentenced to 18 years and 8 months on appeal in the Mafia Capitale trial including for crimes of a “mafia nature,” which is different from being a convicted Mafioso.
According to numerous reports in Italian newspapers, as well as a book and a university thesis on the trial, the money some of the suspects were making from public funds was in the millions.
While Buzzi might have boasted about money to be made several years ago (and is now in prison), the potential for corruption and misuse of public funds destined for migration projects in Italy is ongoing.
According to OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, which conducted an investigation into the use of funds from the European Refugee Fund (ERF) for a project in Italy; “the situation was dire.”
The latest annual report read: “Not only did OLAF’s investigation uncover irregularities in the execution of the public procurement and little control over the implementation of the project, it also exposed outright fraud in declaring the quantity of meals supplied to the asylum-seekers, refugees and people in need accommodated at the centers, who were often left starving or nourished with food products bordering the limits of [what’s edible].”
Cara di Mineo
Prosecutors are still looking into how Europe's biggest migrant camp Cara di Mineo was managed before it was closed down earlier this year. The trial is ongoing with the next hearings scheduled for December. Cara di Mineo sat on a former air-force base about an hour outside the Sicilian town of Catania. At various points, the authorities were investigating at least 15 main suspects including the former mayor of Mineo, Anna Aloisi and the former under-secretary for agricultural policy in Italy Giuseppe Castiglione as well as leaders of an organization providing services for migrant centers in Sicily.
According to newspaper reports from 2016, those running the camp at Mineo had been, between 2012-2015, regularly inflating the numbers of people staying in the camp in order to cash in on the money paid per migrant for food and accommodation. La Repubblica said that the sums fraudulently received at that time amounted to more than 1 million euros. The Catania investigation too made links to those being investigated in the Mafia Capital trial in Rome.
Investigators in Catania were tipped off to what might have been going on with the center in April 2014 when those who were managing the center in Mineo attempted to clear a three-year management contract for the center to the tune of 97 million euros. This sum was blocked by Italy’s national anti-corruption authorities in early 2015 and an investigation began.
‘Don’t expect to make money out of immigration’
When outgoing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini closed Cara di Mineo in 2019, he referred to Italian and Nigerian mafia having been able to operate within the camp. He said that Sicily, Mineo and Catania “should not expect to base its economy on immigration.” He warned anyone expecting to make money out of immigration should “change the way you think.”
In reality though, a report in December 2018 from Open Society and the European Policy Institute found that his decree pushed more migrants into the underground economy (which nourishes corruption) because it removed some of the ways they were previously able to obtain papers and legal work. The majority of those in southern Italy, the report found, were working in the agricultural sector without valid papers.
went on to note that many of the centers hosting about 80 percent of migrants
were in rural areas, were overcrowded and offered no inclusion programs. “This
increased the risk that these migrants would be easily exploitable as workers
in the illegal agricultural economy. The report estimated (based on figures
from MSF) that at least 10,000 people found themselves in informal structures
at risk of this kind of exploitation.
In 2017, Italy lost an estimated 111 billion euros to tax evasion. The newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano claimed corruption cost the country more than 100 billion euros every year. Compared to that, the report said that Italy was, in 2017, spending around 5 billion a year on the centers for refugees and various projects aimed at integrating them into society and processing their asylum claims.
Seemingly, nothing much has changed since then. The anti-mafia organization Libera warned in a December 2018 report on the perceptions and function of the Italian mafia that 41.2 percent of those surveyed felt that public servants who assigned contracts were some of the individuals still involved in corruption. 27.9 percent of them thought that the tenders for those contracts were still corrupt and linked to the various mafias and criminal organizations in Italy.
Under Salvini’s migration and security law, the old state-run structures for running migrant centers were partly swept away, with more private cooperatives and smaller organizations tendering for contracts. But many people who work in the sector felt that could mean that private organizations would be even more motivated by the idea of a profit margin than public ones.
Emanuela Consoli, who heads up a center for unaccompanied minors in Catania, spoke about her previous experiences of the sector where too many private enterprises had entered the market and were trying to cream a profit from the migrants. She maintains that if you do things properly it is impossible to make a profit. She explains her costs per month amount to between 11,000-12,000 euros just in wages. “This is not the kind of business where you can get rich,” she jokes. Many others though appear to be hoping to do just that.
The recent OLAF investigation found evidence of interaction between organized crime groups and some of the companies running centers as well as serious crimes “aimed at manipulating public procurement and illegally obtaining public funding.” There were “several breaches” of the Italian public procurement code which meant there was a “violation of traceability of financial flows, including the required anti-mafia checks.”
As a result of OLAF’s investigations, Italy’s Anti-Mafia public prosecutor’s office in the Calabrian town of Catanzaro is now investigating 84 people who may be linked to mafia groups.
In 2018, OLAF recommended that the Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG Home) at the European Commission try and recover 100 percent of the 1.4 million they gave to this project; as well as issuing further judicial recommendations to anti-mafia authorities in Italy. The trials, investigations and it seems the abuses, continue.