CATANIA, Sicily – When migrants arrive in Italy, exhausted after days of perilous travel in overcrowded boats, some of the first things they receive are gleaming sneakers that stand out incongruously against their grimy and threadbare clothes.
The new shoes symbolize a fresh start, but come courtesy of a seamy underground economy. They're knock-offs made in clandestine factories to meet an insatiable demand for big name brands and sold by street vendors, some of whom arrived by boat themselves not so long ago.
Police in Catania, on Sicily's eastern coast, recently received court permission to donate confiscated counterfeit shoes to aid groups.
"But we try to take off the brand labels first," said police Gen. Pietro Belfiore, who estimated that police seized about 4,000 pairs in Catania alone last year. "We are supposed to try to protect the label, by removing it from the counterfeit items."
Belfiore says most of the counterfeit sales are run by non-Europeans, often from Senegal. Chinese gangs — made up of another sector of Italy's migrant community — make the shoes on the Italian mainland or smuggle them in from Asia through Naples' port. Often brand logos aren't added until they reach Catania, to avoid scrutiny from authorities.
Caritas, a Catholic aid group, says it has given out 415 pairs of shoes to needy people and migrants arriving in the port of Catania alone since the start of the year, along with fresh clothes.
With migrants arriving in record numbers, Valentina Cali, director of the Caritas center in Catania, says that could grow to 1,500 to 2,000 by the end of the year.
The shoes are part of a booming counterfeit market in Italy that includes knock-off Prada handbags and Gucci sunglasses that Italy's financial police estimated was worth 6.5 billion euros in 2012 alone.
Buyers face a fine of 300 euros, but that is rarely enforced. Most are teenagers keen to get name-brand shoes at bargain prices. Hogan and Adidas are particularly popular at the moment. The knock-offs go for as little as 20 euros (dollars), compared with more than five times that at retail stores.
And so many of the fake name-brand shoes go to Italian teenagers for a pittance, while other counterfeits, seized by police, stripped of their logos and offered to aid groups for charity, go to migrants hoping for permission to stay in Europe.
Patricia Thomas contributed to this report.
Follow Frank Jordans on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter