The migrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan were passed off as acrobats, jugglers and tight-rope walkers in an elaborate scam which netted the international trafficking organization behind it over €7 million, police in Palermo said.
Each migrant allegedly paid up to €15,000 to obtain a false work permit from workers within Sicily's regional authorities, of which between €2,000 and €3,000 lined the pockets of circus owners, Palermo Today reported.
Police have detained 41 people, including public service workers and people linked to the national and international circus industry.
The scammers were able to exploit a clause in Italy's immigration law which grants permits to qualified workers from abroad within the entertainment sector, including circus workers and those working in opera and theatre - provided they get special permission from a local authority.
Police said a key protagonist in the scam was Vito Gambino, a 54-year-old labour department manager from Sicily who was in charge of administering work permits in the sector. He would allegedly grant false permits for the circus industry's fictitious new hires.
The permit enabled the non-EU immigrants to then obtain a visa for Italy.
Circus owners Lino and Sandra Orfei, Alvaro Bizzarri and Darvin Cristiani are also being investigated for aiding illegal immigration.