Photo: Soldiers patrol the Isola di Capo Rizzuto migrant centre in southern Italy. (AP: Francesco Arena, ANSA, file)
Italian mobsters took charge of one of Europe's largest migrant reception centres, using a Roman Catholic charity organisation as a cover to skim millions of euros in state funds, prosecutors have revealed.
Police arrested 68 people in early morning raids in southern 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 Capo Rizzuto.
The fenced-in centre can house up to 1,200 migrants, and mobsters from the powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia managed to infiltrate the operation a decade ago, taking charge of key services such as catering and laundry, prosecutors said.
Of some 103 million euros ($152 million) of state funds dispatched to the centre between 2006-2015, at least 36 million euros ($53 million) finished in the hands of the mobsters, police 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."
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.
The local bishop, Domenico Graziani, told InBlu radio he was "dismayed, alarmed and praying".
Police sequestered goods and property worth 84 million euros ($124 million) in their early morning sweep.
Some 200,000 euros ($296,000) was found at the house of one man who had declared annual earnings of just 800 euros ($1,183) to tax authorities, Mr Gratteri said.
Many arrested belonged to 'Ndrangheta mafia
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."
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 Arena family shared out the illicit funds with other clans, bringing to an end brutal mafia warfare in the area and ushering in a period of mob peace, prosecutors said.
They said the Arenas were also suspected of muscling in on the management of a refugee centre on the island of Lampedusa, which is on the front line of Italy's ongoing migrant crisis.