ROME – Immigrants were welcomed with ice cream from Pope Francis, after being stranded at sea onboard the “Diciotti” vessel that was at the heart of the latest arm-wrestle between Italy and the European Union.

“It’s the blessing of the Holy Father for them,” said the papal almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski in an interview with local media Sep. 5. “The hope is that they find here, in Italy, everywhere, a Christian and generous heart and that they might finally feel at home.”

Krajewski visited the welcoming center “Mondo Migliore,” located in Rocca di Papa near Rome and hosting 35 immigrants from the vessel, carrying with him the papal treats perfect for the last hot days of summer. A large group of children greeted the almoner with joy and enthusiasm.

“These are not meant to cool the hearts,” the cardinal joked, “the complete opposite. They are a small sign of the pope’s tenderness for them.”

Father Francesco Soddu, director of Italian Caritas, and Angelo Chiorazzo, founder of the cooperative Auxilium that welcomes immigrants in central Italy, were present when Krajewski visited the center.

The Diciotti was the latest occasion for the new Italian populist government to have a row with the European Union over immigration. Italian Minister of the Interior and leader of the right-wing party in the coalition, Matteo Salvini, has prohibited any vessel carrying immigrants to port on the Italian coast. The political goal is to force the EU to take on some of the load in welcoming foreign nationals.

As a result, the vessel carrying 137 immigrants and 27 unaccompanied minors, was left off the coast of Catania, in southern Italy, for days. Finally, Ireland said it would welcome about 20 immigrants and the non-EU state of Albania offered to welcome another 20. The Catholic Church took on responsibility for hosting the rest, at its own expense, “to put an end to the suffering of these people at sea for days,” and it was later decided that the Italian episcopal conference would divide the immigrants among its parishes.

On Aug. 26 the immigrants were able to disembark in Sicily. Four of them, three Egyptians and one from Bangladesh, were arrested and charged with human trafficking and sexual abuse. The others told local reporters the stories of violence, torture and abuse that they underwent before reaching the Italian shore. Eleven women originally from Eritrea claim to have been raped even before leaving Libya.

On the same day the immigrants arrived in Italy, news broke that Salvini was under investigation for kidnapping, illegal arrest and abuse of office over the Diciotti case. But the drama continues to unfold for the immigrants on the vessel, since over 50 of them have since gone off the radar.

Six immigrants left on Friday Aug. 31 and 21 more went away during the following weekend. Another 13 people were gone even before they left the Sicilian town of Messina, and the number of people missing continues to grow.

“Over 50 of the immigrants that disembarked the Diciotti were so ‘needy’ for protection that they decided to leave and disappear! But how, didn’t I kidnap them?” Salvini said after hearing the report. “It’s the umpteenth confirmation that not all those who arrive in Italy are ‘little skeletons running away from war and famine.’ I will work even harder to change wrong laws and reduce arrivals to zero.”

All those missing are adults and were fingerprinted and put in a digital European system. According to statements by Italian authorities, at least six of the immigrants who left were originally from the Comoros Islands.

Reasons for emigration are numerous, explained Camillo Ripamonti, who heads the Centro Astalli, a Jesuit-run organization that hosts immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

“It depends on what kind of center is welcoming them, where it’s located geographically, if it’s in the open countryside or in a big city, what’s the nationality of the refugees that are welcomed, whether Italy is the final destination or just a country to disembark and transit… it’s difficult now to understand why these refugees went away,” Ripamonti told reporters.

Italy tends to be a transit destination for many immigrants looking for better job opportunities or to be reunited with their families. Also, the prospect of being sent to Albania, a non-EU state, would probably have been a serious set-back for many of those attempting to enter Europe.

Ripamonti clarified that “welcoming centers are not detention centers and therefore people hosted there are free to leave,” adding that the immigrants who left did not escape.

Soddu, who was present at the “Mondo Migliore” welcoming center for the papal ice-cream offering said that it’s clear when looking into the eyes of the immigrants that they have survived terrible and dramatic experiences.

“The face of these people gives testimony to how desperate they are,” Soddu said. “We offered welcome, but their action can be explained through the desperation of who has first crossed the desert and then the sea, of who stayed in the Libyan prisons and now finds themselves here to choose their own life, even if they choose poorly, leaving us all confused.”

Krajewski was there to say farewell to eight immigrants on their way to a center in Turin. “I bring you the greetings of this man dressed in white whose name is Pope Francis,” he said pointing to a picture of the pope, “he is close to you and offers his blessing.”

By Friday, all the remaining immigrants from the Diciotti will have been sent to different dioceses around Italy. But the danger of another similar episode is just around the corner, as tensions between Italy and the EU show no signs of abating.

“We are always available so that the truth, the service for the last and evangelical charity be manifested,” Soddu said. “Far from us to try and substitute the State: We are present, in a subsidiary way, so that people be respected in their dignity.”