Sun, Nov 23, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Mafia eye ‘immigrant hotels’ reviving Sicily’s economy

Resorts once filled with high-end travelers are being occupied by asylum seekers in a state scheme meant to help the immigrants and ailing tourism, but critics say the mafia is the one really cashing in

By Ella Ide  /  AFP, SALEMI, Italy

A road stretches toward the city of Salemi in Sicily, Italy, on Oct. 21, where slumping tourism is prompting hotels to resort to housing asylum seekers.

Photo: AFP

Asylum seekers washing up by the thousands in recession-hit Sicily are boosting the local economy as hotels transform into immigrant centers, with help from state subsidies said to have caught the mafia’s eye.

Sofas and wide-screen TVs in the once opulent suites of the Villa Mokarta hotel in Salemi have been replaced with beds for up to eight migrants a room, their only possessions tatty rucksacks, sneakers and the odd Bible or Koran.

“Tourist reservations had dropped way under 50 percent so we decided to give housing immigrants a go instead,” manager Salvatore Cascia said.

Since February, he has been in charge of the welfare of about 140 asylum seekers, mostly from West Africa and Bangladesh.

The government gives Villa Mokarta and hundreds of structures like it across Italy 30 euros (US$37.50) a day per migrant, 2.50 euros in pocket money and the rest earmarked for bed, board and services such as Italian language lessons, psychological care and legal assistance in applying for asylum.

This new hospitality business, which currently houses more than 32,300 migrants according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, is worth close to 1 million euros a day.

“Here we eat, do some sport and free our minds,” Ebou Cham from the Gambia said as he lifted weights with a sports instructor in a make-shift gym in the hotel, which also boasts table football, Sky television, free Wi-Fi and a vegetable lot run by the immigrants.

The daily workout “helps to forget about many things we leave behind, the things that make us come here,” said the 21-year-old, who washed up on Italy’s shores in January after a harrowing three-month journey across desert and sea.

The villa is one of 32 beachside or hill-top hotels, holiday resorts, former schools and old people’s homes that have been transformed over the past 12 months into immigrant centers in the Trapani region in western Sicily.

Cascia, 56, said the venture was bringing “much needed oxygen” to the local economy in the south, which is suffering its worst recession since World War II, according to economic research center Fondazione Curella.

Yet in Sicily, as in many other Italian regions, there is growing resentment over the presence of immigrants. Minors housed in a center on the outskirts of Rome had to be moved to safety last week after local residents attacked the institution.

With more than 150,000 people landing on Italy so far this year — and more boats incoming — other structures are expected to open.

Aid organizations such as Catholic charity Caritas have warned that crime groups in the poverty-stricken mafia heartland may be exploiting the system to pocket much of the funds.

“There’s a river of money, millions of euros, handed out without tenders and without checking whether the structures have anti-mafia certificates,” said Sicilian Senator Mario Michele Giarrusso of the Five Star Movement political party.

“It’s an enormous scandal and in a land like Sicily, an incredible risk,” he said, adding that police investigations had been launched into centers found to be keeping migrants in cramped spaces on dirty beds and giving them only white rice to eat.

Don Sergio, head of Caritas in Palermo, said not only were “many trying to make money off these poor devils,” but were cutting corners on services like psychological care, essential for those fleeing war zones and persecution.

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