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Italian police on Monday arrested 68 people in a major operation targeting mafia suspects, who allegedly infiltrated one of Europe's largest migrant centers, authorities here said.
The probe involved the Arena clan of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate based in the southern region of Calabria.
The clan infiltrated the Sant'Anna Cara reception center in the Calabrian town of Isola di Capo Rizzuto, according to Anti-Mafia District Directorate (DDA) prosecutors in Catanzaro who coordinated the operation.
The suspects are thought to have syphoned off funds allocated for the care of migrants and asylum seekers from both the Italian government and the European Union (EU) for years.
Most of those arrested belonged to the Arena clan, and all of them were charged with mafia association, extortion, illegal possession of weapons, fraud, embezzlement of state funds, and theft, police said in a statement.
"The investigation has stretched over a period of about 10 years, in which the migrant center in Capo Rizzuto has been managed through mafia methods," chief prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told a press conference.
The head of the local branch of the association, Misericordia -- a Roman Catholic volunteer group officially managing the migrant center -- and a local priest were among those arrested, according to Ansa news agency.
After the operation, the association announced the whole Calabrian branch would be barred, and put under extraordinary administration.
A number of assets were also seized in the operation, which was carried out overnight by 500 officers from the Carabinieri military police special operations unit (ROS) and financial police.
With an overall capacity of 1,246 places, the Sant'Anna Cara migrant and refugee hub is thought to be one of the largest in Europe.
The clan is believed to have exerted its control over the management -- infiltrating all supply services destined to the center -- thanks to the alleged support of the chief of the Misericordia association, according to prosecutors.
"Specific firms were created to receive funds and provide meals (to the center), yet those funds were used to buy movie theaters, apartments, luxury cars and boats, and plots of land," the chief prosecutor told reporters.
The Arena family have illegally earned an estimated 36 million euros (39.5 million U.S. dollars) out of a total 103 million euros of allocated funds between 2006 and 2015, La Repubblica newspaper reported citing sources from the DDA office.
The clan has been also involved in the catering services to the migrant center in Lampedusa Island, which has been on the frontline of Europe's migration crisis for years due to its close location to the coasts of northern Africa.
Italy took in 181,436 migrants and refugees in 2016, some 175,000 of which were currently hosted in the national network of reception centers, recent data from the interior ministry showed.
Up to May 12, the country has registered 45,118 new arrivals. The government has estimated a budget of 3.4 billion euros for funding the reception centers in 2017, Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan told parliament in November.
(ASIA PACIFIC DAILY)