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500 to be evicted from Italian refugee centre in major immigration crackdown

Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 migrants hosted at the center in Castelnuovo di Porto, which is now slated to be closed

In this handout picture released by the Vatican Press Office, Pope Francis performs the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016. AFP 
In this handout picture released by the Vatican Press Office, Pope Francis performs the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016. AFP 

More than 500 refugees have been forcibly removed from Italy’s second-largest refugee camp as part of the populist government’s ongoing crackdown on immigration.

The reception centre located in Castelnuovo di Porto, in the outskirts of Rome, hosted around 540 asylum seekers and was chosen by the Pope Francis in 2016 for the traditional Holy Thursday mass.

In that occasion, the pontiff knelt in front of 12 migrants of different origins and religions and performed a foot-washing ceremony – a powerful symbol of Christianity’s preaching of love and fraternity.

Since Tuesday, however, the migrants who reside in the centre have been shown another face of Italy. Thirty people have so far been forced to leave the premises while another 75 were put on a bus with no prior knowledge of their destination.

The centre is now set to be closed by January 31st following funding cuts enforced by the government – a coalition between the far-right League party and the anti –establishment 5 Star movement.

A major overhaul of immigration policies begun in November with the approval of a “security decree” that abolished asylum rights on humanitarian grounds.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), at least 10 people among those who were evicted from Castelnuovo di Porto have been stripped of their humanitarian protection status in the aftermath of the law.

Critics say such measures will leave thousands of people undocumented and with no accommodation, making crime more likely than less.

Observers also criticised the way in which the government carried out the transfers, sending in the police and the army with barely 48 hours of notice and no prior coordination with the local authorities or the organizations responsible for running the centre.

Auxilium, the cooperative responsible for managing the reception centre in Castelnuovo di Porto, said the crackdown will also result in 107 staff members being laid off.

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The municipality of Castelnuovo di Porto issued a statement saying that “at one blow, years of efforts and good work to guarantee [integration] have been wiped out.”

Other hotspots across Italy are set to close in the coming months, including Italy's largest in Mineo, Sicily.

League leader Matteo Salvini – who spearheaded the security degree, also known as the “Salvini decree” – said the closures would save the government 6 million euro (over Dh25 million) a year, which would instead be spent “helping Italians.”

“I did what any good father would have done,” he said.

Mr Salvini currently faces international criticism over the closure of Italian ports to rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean. Germany announced Tuesday its abrupt suspension of the deployment of a naval vessel operating as part of the European Union’s Operation Sophia mission following a flare-up over Italy’s refusal to take any migrants in.

Mr Salvini also took a swipe at French President Emmanuel Macron during an interview on Italian state TV, where he predicted he would have “new counterparts” in Paris or even Berlin after the European elections in May.

The Italian firebrand took up the role of Interior Ministry and deputy Prime Minister after obtaining little over 17 per cent in the general elections in March. The League formed a coalition government with the 5 Star Movement, which got around 32 per cent of the votes, but the latest political polls see Mr Salvini lead the coalition with 35,8 per cent of electoral preferences – the best result in its history.

Updated: January 24, 2019 05:37 PM

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