June 7, 2016 at 7:53 PM EDT
As summer arrives, thousands of migrants are embarking upon perilous Mediterranean crossings to get to Europe. In Sicily, authorities attempting to deal with the influx discovered a four-billion-dollar ruse: a migrant reception center that turned out to be a front for powerful Mafia families. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: Europe’s problems in coping with the refugee crisis have taken a new, ominous twist, the involvement of the mafia.
Authorities in Sicily have uncovered a $4 billion fraud scheme involving a reception center for migrants. This comes as humanitarian groups predict a grim summer in the Western Mediterranean, as thousands of migrants and refugees attempt to reach Europe. Many have already died.
From Sicily, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
MALCOLM BRABANT: This Norwegian tanker pulling into the Sicilian port of Augusta is a lifesaver. Its crew rescued 220 people whose overcrowded vessel sank off the southern Greek island of Crete after setting off from Egypt.
As many as 300 others are feared to have drowned, among them, the mothers of two Egyptian girls aged 3 and 7. Eighty of those on board the tanker were children. The ruthlessness of the people smugglers in North Africa dismays Giovanna Di Benedetto of Save the Children.
GIOVANNA DI BENEDETTO, Save the Children: It’s all very dangerous because people traffickers don’t have any respect for human beings, for human life, for pregnant women or children or babies. So these people are forced to do this travel in very dangerous boats.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Having survived the perilous crossing from North Africa, these unaccompanied children are attempting to phone home to let their relatives know they are safe.
This Eritrean boy begged to use a mobile phone to call his brother in Holland; 17-year-old Eliyas Bahra from Eritrea was with six friends on board an unpowered boat that was being towed by another craft. When it began to take on water, the line was cut. This was just one disaster that made May this year one of the deadliest months on record, as this footage from the Italian navy shows.
ELIYAS BAHRA, Eritrean Refugee: The first boat had a motor. Our boat not have a motor. This water full — our boat is full of water. Me and six friends are not dead. Me and six friends, altogether seven, seven not dead, 450 person dead, people.
MALCOLM BRABANT: These teenagers from Gambia in West Africa are exploring a town near the center where they are living while their asylum cases are being considered; 17-year-old Alieu Kah has dreams of furthering his education and following in the footsteps of Italian soccer star Francesco Totti. They have all witnessed too much.
ALIEU KAH, Gambian Refugee: I saw people shouting inside the river, shouting, “Help, help.” But we couldn’t help them, because our own boat is full. It’s around 120 people in one boat, 120 people. I feel very sad, because my fellow human beings are dying, and we cannot help. It’s very sad. It made me very sad.
MALCOLM BRABANT: The journey to reach Sicily was perilous on land, as well as sea. They traveled from Gambia, through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, to Niger, and then they had to cross the Sahara Desert to Libya, where they encountered violent smugglers, who forced the migrants onto overcrowded boats.
ALIEU KAH: Libyan people, some are good, but some are not good. They shot many of our friends in their legs. They would break all their legs.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Giuseppe Bonanno Conti wants to stop the influx. He’s a regional leader of a right-wing party called New Force, and is urging Europe to emulate the uncompromising tactics of Australia, which turned back migrants vessels and eventually deterred boat people coming from South Asia.
GIUSEPPE BONANNO CONTI, President, Forza Nuova Party (through interpreter): Our navy should act like Australia’s, close our sea and not allow anyone in, so that people traffickers realize that no one can enter Italy anymore. There would no longer be mass immigration, and we would save human lives. In such an awful way, these people are fed to the fish in the Mediterranean.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Listening into the conversation was Vincenzo Rizzo, who’s concerned that Sicily has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union.
VINCENZO RIZZO, Pensioner (through interpreter): The only thing that’s planned is for refugees, Muslims, and Africans. There are no longer laws for Italians, nothing to counter unemployment. It’s as if Italians no longer existed.
MALCOLM BRABANT: But these Africans feel anything but privileged. The younger ones spend their days cycling around the countryside near Europe’s largest permanent refugee camp, where some of them have been waiting three or four years to find out whether they can stay or will be deported.
There’s a history of trouble here, because frustrations occasionally boil over. The guards are heavily armed.
Madil Sano is an I.T. graduate from Senegal who would only allow us to film him in profile.
MADIL SANO, Senegalese Refugee (through interpreter): This place is appalling. It’s like hell. It’s a huge prison. They believe that Africans are illiterate, that we don’t understand anything, that we’re like animals.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Accordion players strike up the iconic “Godfather” theme to remind tourists of Sicily’s deep-rooted mafia connections.
Across the island, small businesses have to pay protection money. The alternative is to have their livelihoods extinguished. There’s no doubt that the mafia is involved in most, if not all aspects of immigration. This week, the authorities closed down this reception center because they discovered links between the so-called nonprofit organization running it and well-known mafia families.
The finance police investigated the money trail for supplies of food, clothes and cleaning materials, and uncovered a $4 billion fraud. Local chief prosecutor Francesco Paolo Giordano is convinced that this is just the tip of a mob-controlled iceberg.
FRANCESCO PAOLO GIORDANO, Chief Prosecutor, Siracusa (through interpreter): The mafia has total control of the territory. It would be absurd not to think they have infiltrated the business of clandestine immigration.
MALCOLM BRABANT: The mafia aside, Europe is struggling to cope with the strain of the migration crisis and is doing what it can to stop a repeat of last year’s record influx, when a million people cross the Mediterranean in search of sanctuary or new opportunities.
Angela Lupo, a lawyer with the Italian Council for Refugees is predicting a long, fatal summer.
ANGELA LUPO, Italian Council for Refugees (through interpreter): There will be more and more deaths. The people traffickers are reorganizing themselves to make the highest profit, which is fundamental to them.
MALCOLM BRABANT: Some migration experts believe that these latest disasters in the Mediterranean are a direct consequence of the European Union’s deal with Turkey, which has so far stemmed the flow of migrants and refugees to Greece.
But the pressure to reach Europe has not diminished. And so traffickers and their desperate clientele are being forced to find different and more dangerous routes.
Fate has been kind to these people. After being saved from the deep, they have the gift of life. But Europe’s internal borders are being tightened with every passing day. Their struggle for a new existence is just beginning.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Sicily.