ROME – At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa where hundreds of migrants and refugees arrived every day after risking their lives at sea. Today Italy struggles with those very same migration flows that show no signs of slowing as political unrest and environmental crises continue to plague the African continent and the Middle East.

Anti-migration sentiment has been rising on the Italian peninsula, especially in right-wing populist parties who have recently criticized NGOs that rescue refugees in the Mediterranean Sea of allegedly colluding with North African traffickers to bring even more migrants into the country in order to make a profit.

Church leaders have stepped up in defense of the NGOs, after the Italian government, in an effort to exercise further control and monitoring, asked nine NGOs to sign a ‘code of conduct’ comprised of 13 points in early August. Among the most contested issues in the code was that of allowing the Italian Coast Guard to board the organizations’ boats for routine checks.

Marco Tarquinio, the editor of the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, criticized this provision within the code saying that it risks “encouraging and pseudo-legitimizing the efforts to put under the administration of an external commissioner (or expel) the NGOs that are unwelcome in various parts of the world.”

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The Avvenire’s statements reflect the concerns of some NGOs, for example Doctors without Borders, that have refused to sign the code in its current form. The Prime Minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, is instead optimistic on the results that the code is producing.

“It’s an important piece of a government strategy,” Gentiloni said in an interview on Italian news channel TG1, adding that the code is “creating results, such as the reduction of the (migratory) flows.”

The code of conduct is the brainchild of the Minister of the Interior, Marco Minniti, who oversees issues related to migration. Minniti has been involved in a public debate concerning competences on migrant issues with the Minister of Infrastructures, Graziano Delrio, who opposed the code of conduct and generally sided with NGOs.

The code was signed by the majority of the interested NGOs, scoring a political victory for Minniti. Meanwhile, the head of the immigration office of Italian Caritas, Oliviero Forti, invited the government to “avoid this ‘theatre’ with two unsustainable opposing factions,” and stressed the fact that it’s “the migrants who pay the price.”

The migrant issue “must not be uniquely centered on the NGOs code of conduct but on rescue operations,” Forti continued, “because beyond codes, human lives are at risk, which is our primary concern.”

“Who is going to take responsibility?” he asked.

Fabio Baggio, the undersecretary of the migrant and refugee section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, offered an alternative solution.

“In order to fight trafficking and the migrant trade it’s necessary to open legal and safe entryways, through policies and laws that are targeted and forward-looking,” the pope’s man on migration told Italian media outlets. “Restrictive migration policies have often contributed to increasing the demand for alternative migration channels.”