Italy arrests 44 in mafia migrant centre probe

Luca Gramazio, ex-leader of Forza Italia in the Lazio regional assembly, is arrested during a police search, in Rome, Italy, 4 June 2015. Image copyright EPA
Image caption Luca Gramazio, ex-leader of Forza Italia in the Lazio regional assembly, was among those arrested on Thursday

Police in Italy have arrested 44 people over the rigging of public contracts to run migrant reception centres.

Local politicians were among those detained after an investigation uncovered widespread corruption.

Anti-mafia police believe the network, based around Rome, is connected to alleged crime boss Massimo Carminati, who was arrested in December.

Italy is struggling with an influx of migrants making the perilous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean.

Regional councillor Luca Gramazio, from ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, was among those placed in handcuffs in the raids on Thursday morning.

He is accused of serving as a go-between for corrupt businessmen and a mob that survived on rigging public contracts.

As well as those arrested, Rome police said another 21 people were being investigated and their offices searched.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Police searched the offices of suspects

They said an investigation last year into corruption at city institutions - a case dubbed Mafia Capital - had uncovered a widespread system designed to allow a cartel of companies to win lucrative public contracts to manage migrant reception centres.

Politicians and business people are accused of being on the payroll of Massimo Carminati, the former leader of a far-right armed group, who was detained as part of the 2014 operation.

As well as reception centres, the criminal network was also involved in contracts for garbage disposal and park maintenance, police say.

'Stop the boats'

Correspondents say the centres - set up to house asylum seekers and recently-arrived migrants - have created a rich source of income for unscrupulous operators, as the Mediterranean migrant boat crisis has left the authorities struggling to deal with the tens of thousands of arrivals.

"We need to stop the boat departures and stop the public tenders immediately," Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, said following the latest arrests.

Italy has been seeking help from other EU states to deal with the migrant influx.

The European Commission has called on EU member states to take in 40,000 asylum seekers who land in Italy and Greece over the next two years.

However, the idea of using quotas to resettle those who have made it to Europe has caused controversy in some EU states, with some countries saying they will not take part.

The UN estimates that 60,000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean, mainly from Libya, in the past five months, and that about 1,800 people have died.

The death toll represents a 30-fold increase on the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Many migrants are trying to escape conflict or poverty in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.

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