Published on 3 June 2019
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Does organised crime distort policy for asylum seekers?

New empirical evidence from Davide Luca and Paola Proietti suggests that mafia organisations may have infiltrated the public process, affecting the local likelihood of hosting a reception centre. The presence of organised crime is correlated to less transparent procurement procedures used locally in the selection of the not-for-profit organisations that manage reception centres.

In recent years, the world has witnessed an astounding rise in the number of asylum seekers. A growing amount of research has started assessing the effects of such inflows on receiving countries, exploring their impacts on labour markets, social cohesion, and natives’ voting behaviours.

We investigated whether organised crime networks have exploited the rise in migrants as a ‘business opportunity’. Focusing on Italy, a country which has witnessed a significant influx of asylum seekers, we asked if and how organised crime has influenced the geography of asylum seekers’ reception centres (ASRCs). Are Mafia groups skimming margins from the public resources devoted to reception activities?

Italy is a main landing point for asylum seekers travelling to Europe. In 2017, approximately 92% of those who reached Europe did it by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that, in the same year, Italy received most of the inflows, accounting for 64% of the overall registered arrivals. According to international laws, asylum seekers have the right to receive material reception from the moment of their arrival until the decision on their protection status is taken. In the ordinary reception system, asylum seekers are allocated to the local authorities that successfully bid for it in partnership with not-for-profit entities, who then take care of managing ASRCs.

Plausible cases of infiltration by organised crime in the set-up and management of Italian ASRCs have recently made international headlines (“Migrants are more profitable than drugs” The Guardian, 1 Feb 2018).

The New York Times wrote:

‘Beyond cocaine smuggling, Ndrangheta mobsters used to be strong on extortion and public bids: now it’s gaming and the migrant centres,’ Mr. Gratteri [an anti-mafia investigator, A./N.] explains in his office, behind an armoured door. ‘They are just one of the ways to become richer for the mafia’

While judicial investigations are still ongoing, cases reported in the Italian Parliament speak of centres being opened with the involvement of mafia organisations, forcing asylum applicants to live in environments which are “uninhabitable and harmful to human rights and dignity” to allow organised crime to skim the highest margins from the public resources devoted to reception activities. Yet, no research had explored in a systematic way the potential link existing between mafia–like organisations and the reception of asylum seekers.

Our analysis aims to fill this gap. To do that, we exploit data on the location of asylum seekers hosted in reception centres and on the presence of mafia across Italy’s almost 8,000 municipalities. We show how the presence of mafia at the local level is strongly correlated to an increase in the likelihood of hosting a reception centre, as well as to the number of asylum seekers hosted, even accounting for differences in geographical, political and socio-economic local characteristics.

To provide evidence on the mechanisms underlying our main findings, we then use novel and unique data on Italy’s public procurement contracts awarded for the management of ASRCs. Results suggest that the presence of organised crime is robustly correlated to the use of direct awards (less transparent) over open tenders (more transparent). Our hypothesis is that criminal organisations may be able to distort the process towards closed-bidding procedures, where rigging is less noticeable.

This seems to be facilitated by two main reasons:

  1. The special procurement discipline that applies to not–for–profit organisations in Italy contributed to enabling exceptional practices.
  2. After the significant growth of migrant inflows the hosting of asylum seekers across many European countries has been managed under emergency procedures which weakened public control.

Our findings contribute to the growing debate on the geographies of organised crime and its socioeconomic effects (as written by Tim Hall or Ray Hudson). Besides that, while in the last years migrants have been frequently blamed for peaks in crimes – a claim which finds little evidence in the data –, our paper offers an alternative perspective by showing how migrants can be the victims, rather than the cause, of local criminal organisations.

While the findings come from Italy, a country that has historically suffered from the widespread presence of mafia organisations, the implications of better understanding how organised crime infiltrate public policy are much broader. Modern criminal organisations have reached a global scale, affecting an increasing proportion of world economic activity and playing a substantial role in the development of both poor and rich countries alike.

The British National Crime Agency estimates that serious and organised crime in the UK employs more than 30,000 professional gangsters and costs the country £37bn a year.

Results have direct implications for the current European policy debate on how to contrast mafia organisations. In Italy, an example of a risk-reduction initiative is the publication of guidelines aimed at instructing local councils – which frequently lack strong capacity – on how to contrast the infiltration of organised crime. On the other hand, the ruling Italian government has recently introduced legislative changes aimed at relaxing the public procurement code and increasing the threshold under which public bodies can directly award public contracts without the need of an open bidding procedure. This was done against the negative opinion expressed by many anti-mafia experts. The results of our analysis suggest that such policy changes may be significantly detrimental to reducing potential mafia infiltrations.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Paola Proietti

Paola Proietti

Paola has a Bachelor and a Master Degree in Economic and Social Sciences from Bocconi University and a Phd in Urban Studies and Regional Science from the Gran Sasso Science...

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