“We're saving quite a bit of money, we're working to find new jobs for the centre's ex-workers, but Sicily, Catania and Mineo cannot base their future on immigration,” Salvini said as he shut the centre.
Salvini said the future was “in smaller and more controlled centres”, after the final inhabitants were removed last week to be sent to another centre in Calabria.
About 50 former workers at the centre and unionists protested ahead of Salvini's arrival, handing a protest banner reading: “Today we celebrate the funeral of Mineo”.
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This reception centre, a former housing complex for the 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 Salvini's League party and the populist Five Star Movement came to power in June last year, it housed 2,500.
Since then Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, has declared war on charity rescue vessels, barring their entry to Italian ports in recent weeks. Thousands of migrants nevertheless continue to arrive by their own means or are rescued by the Italian authorities.
Psychologist Massimiliano Terrasi stood amid the arid countryside outside the centre where he worked since 2011, disappointed at what he said could have been.
Massimiliano Terrasi. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
“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.
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
Built 'on numbers'
Local resident Sergio Mastrilli was more critical, as he drank a beer on a Mineo bar terrace.
“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.”
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Mastrilli, a 25-year-old law student, is a supporter of Luigi Di Maio's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has been in a ruling coalition with Salvini's League 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.
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
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.
But the US military gave up its lease in 2010, and the arrival of the reception centre and migrants made Sicilians in the area both worried and jealous.
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The migrants were notably prepared to work for €10 or €20 a day during the orange harvest, angering locals who could not work for so little.
'A big illusion'
But the centre also employed 400 people in the area, and Mineo's current mayor, Giuseppe Mistretta, has threatened to resign if the state doesn't help with the post-migrant transition.
“Mineo's closure is the inexorable epilogue of a big illusion, in a region starved of jobs,” said Sicily's conservative regional president Nello Musumeci.
In Mineo's town centre. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
Several judicial probes are currently underway, implicating notably Mineo's former mayor and the centre's former director. Allegations include preferential awarding of contracts, and an exaggeration of migrant numbers to attract state subsidies that accompanied each new arrival.
In January, police broke up a Nigerian organised crime drug dealing group based within the centre, and a prostitution ring.
By AFP's Giovanni Grezzi and Raphaëlle Griffon