Italy's Salvini closes Europe's once largest migrant centre

Hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini attends the closure of Mineo centre, which had also employed 400 people.

    Salvini had been critical of the Mineo centre for several years as part of his anti-migration policies [Orietta Scardino/EPA]
    Salvini had been critical of the Mineo centre for several years as part of his anti-migration policies [Orietta Scardino/EPA]

    A migrant reception centre on the Italian island of Sicily, which was once the largest in Europe, has been officially shut down. 

    Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini attended the closure on Tuesday and live-streamed himself walking around the facility and speaking to journalists.

    The leader of the populist League party has been a critical opponent of the Mineo centre, which housed 4,100 people at its peak in 2014.

    In 2017, he spent the night in the facility and claimed to have seen what he called "organised migration" designed to "replace Italian people with other people, Italian workers with other workers".

    Speaking to reporters at the centre on Tuesday, Salvini said the future was in "smaller and more controlled centres", after the final inhabitants were removed last week to be sent to another centre in southern Italy's Calabria region.

    About 50 former workers at the centre and unionists protested on Tuesday before Salvini's arrival, holding a banner reading: "Today we celebrate the funeral of Mineo."

    Salvini also underlined the decrease in migrant arrivals since he came to office, saying the number of migrants in centres is down from 182,000 a year ago to 107,000 currently.

    Interior Ministry figures show that 3,073 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, compared with 17,000 in the same period last year and 85,000 a year earlier.

    TRANSLATION: Now Mineo can return to the real economy, that of agriculture, trade and labour, not that based on the business of illegal immigration. #fromwordstodeeds

    Italy is one of the main entry points for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa for Europe.

    Salvini, who is also Italy's deputy prime minister, has declared war on charity rescue vessels, barring their entry into Italian ports in recent weeks. He has also butted heads with the European Union's Mediterranean Sea patrol mission over where migrants and refugees should disembark. 

    Despite this, thousands continue to arrive by their own means or are rescued by Italian authorities. Earlier on Tuesday, 47 people were brought to shore in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo by Italy's financial police. 

    Uncertain futures

    The closure of the Mineo centre was announced last month after the numbers of migrants and refugees housed there dropped significantly from 2,526 to 152, Italy's ANSA news agency reported. 

    A former housing complex for the United States military, the centre had been the cause of local controversy for some time due to issues of overcrowding, corruption and crime.

    Several judicial probes are under way, implicating Mineo's former mayor and the centre's former director.

    Allegations include preferential awarding of contracts and the exaggeration of inhabitant numbers to attract state subsidies that accompanied each new arrival. 

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    In January, police broke up a Nigerian organised drug-dealing group based within the centre, and a prostitution ring.

    In 2015, a teenager who had been living at the centre killed an elderly couple.

    The AFP news agency also reported that the migrants and refugees at the camp were prepared to work for 10-20 euros ($11-22) a day during the orange harvest, angering locals who could not work for such low wages. 

    However, the centre also employed 400 people in the area. Mineo's Mayor, Giuseppe Mistretta, has threatened to resign if the state does not help with the post-migration transition.

    During his visit, Salvini said the government was "working to find new jobs for the centre's ex-workers" but warned that "Sicily, Catania and Mineo cannot base their future on immigration".

    "Mineo's closure is the inexorable epilogue of a big illusion in a region starved of jobs," Sicily's Regional President Nello Musumeci said.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies