News Analysis: Organized crime makes migrant crisis even harder to handle for Italy

by Eric J. Lyman

ROME, Sept. 10 (Xinhua) -- One of Italy's oldest problems, organized crime, is making its newest major international challenge -- the growing migrant crisis -- harder to handle, experts say.
The migrant crisis is among the most difficult issues facing Italy today: the cash-strapped Italian government is spending millions patrolling the waters between Africa and the southernmost Italian islands looking for boatloads of desperate migrants. Many die on the way, and those who survive must be registered and processed.
And it must do it all despite meddling from Italian organized crime families. "The role of organized crime in the migrant crisis is important and it is growing larger," Stefania Panebianco, a political scientist at the University of Catania in Sicily, one of the mob's regional bases, told Xinhua.
Earlier this year, the investigation of Mafia Capitale case, which involved officials in Rome, included a wiretap from organized crime figure Salvatore Buzzi, who said that the mob now makes more money from human trafficking in connection with the migrant crisis than from drugs.
An earlier report revealed mob ties to migrant processing centers connected to everything from smuggling of drugs and guns, the illicit trafficking of new arrivals, and prostitution, where a rising percentage of the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 foreign prostitutes working in Italy are said to be culled from the ranks of newly-arrived migrants.
Italian newspapers have reported that police are concerned about the disappearance of nearly 5,000 migrant children over the last year, with speculation some may have been sucked into child labor schemes or underage prostitution.
According to Giancarlo Perego, director general of the Rome-based Fondazione Migrantes (Foundation for Migrants), gangsters charge 2,000 euros or more to illegally smuggle a migrant from one of the detention centers in southern Italy to the country's northern border.
Additionally, crime gangs are collaborating with counterparts in north Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Europe -- increasing profits and making the problem much harder to confront.
"Organized crime links are making this problem an international issue," Perego said in an interview.
Because it is such a complex issue, it is difficult to confront. In June, for example, a single raid led to 44 arrests of criminals and senior government officials collaborating in operating a migrant processing center. Police said those arrests could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Perego said a government policy allowing for the free passage of migrants would do a lot to undermine the influence of crime organizations. For her part, Panebianco said that Italy is limited in what it can do on its own.

"When Italy asks for help from other European countries with the migrant crisis, it shouldn't only ask for financial support," said Panebianco, who also works at Rome's LUISS University. "It should also for international cooperation on intelligence and identifying organized crime ties. That is the only way to fight the problem."