MINEO, Italy (AFP) – What was once Europe’s biggest migrant reception centre, in Mineo in Sicily, was officially closed yesterday in the presence of its biggest critic, far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.
“Promise kept,” Salvini, in government also as Deputy Prime Minister for the past year, said last week when the centre’s final inhabitants were removed, to be sent to another centre in Calabria.
This reception centre, a former housing complex for the United States (US) military that resembles an American suburb, is now guarded by Italian troops who block access under a roasting Sicilian sun.
At its peak in 2014, Mineo housed more than 4,100 people.
Its population then steadily dropped. When anti-migrant Salvini and the populist Five Star Movement came to power in June last year, it housed 2,500.
Psychologist Massimiliano Terrasi stood amid the arid countryside outside the centre where he worked since 2011, disappointed at what he said could have been.
“Hopes were high when the centre first opened and we grew professionally,” he told AFP-TV.
“Well managed, it could have been an asset for the area and for people’s mutual understanding,” he lamented, voicing anger at the abrupt end to his years of work, final wages still unpaid.
In the beginning, care and hygiene conditions were decent, he said. But things started to deteriorate when the population went over 3,000.
“If you look at how the centre was in the end, it’s a good thing that it closed. But if you think what it could have been, it’s a pity,” he said.
Local resident Sergio Mastrilli was more critical.
“When the centre first opened, I immediately thought it wasn’t a good thing,” he said.
“It wasn’t a reception centre built on integration but on numbers.”
Mastrilli, a 25-year-old law student, is a supporter of Luigi di Maio’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which is in a ruling coalition with Salvini’s Lega for the last 13 months.
“There were more than 4,000 people from 85 different ethnicities, while Mineo has around 5,000 inhabitants,” he said.
He called for a Europe-wide solution to migration, and suggested “many migrants would like to stay in their own countries,” if they could.
The centre’s 400 small yellow and pink houses lie in tidy rows, a reminder of the time when US families from the neighbouring base at Sigonella called it home.