Police said Fr Edoardo Scordio was the 'organiser of a true system of exploitation of public funds destined for the migrant emergency'

The mafia has moved in on one of Italy’s few growth industries: caring for migrants.

Italian authorities on Monday arrested 68 people, including a priest and the head of a huge Catholic volunteer group, “Mercy,” and accused them of being in cahoots with a major mafia clan that allegedly skimmed millions in public funds destined for asylum-seekers at a welcome centre in southern Italy.

Announcing the arrests, an incredulous Carabinieri Gen. Giuseppe Governale summarised the scam: “The welcome centre and ‘Mercy’ were the ATMs of the mafia.”

Investigators said the Arena clan of the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta mob had secured a lock on servicing the Isola di Capo Rizzuto migrant centre for the past decade, thanks in part to its links to “Mercy” and its regional head, Leonardo Sacco.

Sacco is a well-connected Italian, and his arrest took on broader implications given the number of politicians linked to him. Even Pope Francis has been photographed with him. The Calabrian holding centre is one of Italy’s largest, and “Mercy” is a major national organisation that runs migrant centres and provides other volunteer services around the country.

Investigators said “Mercy” subcontracted catering services to companies run by the Arena clan, which allegedly skimmed some 36 million euros ($39.5 million) of the 103 million in public funds destined for migrant care at the centre between 2006-2015.

Part of the scam involved putting in for more meals than were actually provided, and then pocketing the money to buy real estate, fancy cars and luxury boats, said Catanzaro prosecutor Nicola Gratteri.

Police said Fr Edoardo Scordio, a parish priest affiliated with “Mercy,” was the “organiser of a true system of exploitation of public funds destined for the migrant emergency.”

Scordio in 2007 pocketed 132,000 euros for his spiritual services that he offered the refugees, police said in a statement.

The blitz, dubbed “Operation Jonny,” was the second major investigation into the lucrative business of caring for migrants: In 2015, police in Rome arrested 44 local politicians and businessmen accused of forming a network that rigged public contracts to provide services for migrant holding centres in the Italian capital.

Italy’s anti-corruption czar, Raffaele Cantone, said the arrests are just “the tip of the iceberg” given the migrant crisis and amount of public money being spent on it.

“The issue has behind it the urgency of responding to the migrants, who are arriving in ever greater numbers, and that often checks fall through the cracks,” the ANSA news agency quoted him as saying.

In addition to the migrant centre, police accused the Arena clan members of a host of mafia-related crimes, including running betting parlours and extortion rackets. In all, authorities seized some 84 million euros in real estate, cars, financial holdings and other assets.