Vatican priest's mission for African migrants to Italy

Father Mussie Zerai
Image caption Father Mussie Zerai has contacts with migrants and people traffickers across North Africa.

With thousands of migrants from strife-torn North Africa arriving in Italy, the BBC World Service's Outlook programme spoke to a man who is trying to assist the travellers on their perilous journey. Not a human trafficker - but a priest.

From his office in the Vatican's Ethiopian College, Father Mussie Zerai has a direct line to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Staying in touch by satellite phone, he is in constant contact with African migrants as they attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe.

In desperation, many of these migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean in rickety wooden boats or inflatables.

When they get in trouble Fr Zerai is on hand to call the coastguard - or to alert local media to pressure Italian authorities to come to their assistance.

His organisation, Agenzia Habeshia, was set up in 2006 and for years Father Zerai has been campaigning for the rights of North African migrants.

The political crises in Tunisia and Egypt, and the conflict in Libya, have caused a huge upsurge in the numbers of Africans making the journey to Europe, and brought international attention to the organisation.

The first port of call for many African migrants is the tiny island of Lampedusa in southern Italy. Tens of thousands of people have arrived there in the past few weeks, mostly from nearby Tunisia, but also from Egypt and Libya.

Libya has been a traditional transit route for illegal migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and sub-Saharan Africa who hope to end up in Europe.

Deadly journey

But Fr Zerai says for such people the route has recently become much more dangerous.

"People opposed to the Gaddafi regime regarded all Africans with suspicion, because he used African mercenaries," he says.

He has heard stories of migrants caught within the country's borders who suffered attacks, robbery and harassment, and several who were killed.

Image caption Many women and children are among the thousands making the dangerous crossing to Europe

Those who make it to Libya's coast face further danger, he explains. "They set off across the Mediterranean in those big boats which in theory shouldn't be put to sea at all."

In recent weeks, he believes that more than 600 people have died at sea.

"They risk everything, hoping to reach a safe place where they will receive international protection in order to rebuild their lives."

But the recent deluge of migrants has, according to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, caused a humanitarian crisis in the south of Italy.

Earlier this month he ordered the first round of deportations back to Africa.

Amid such concerns, Fr Zerai has come under pressure from anti-immigration lobbyists and has been accused of encouraging illegal migration into Europe.

"I don't encourage anybody to come to Italy, or Europe in general," he insists. "These people must flee in order to save their lives."

Arriving in Italy as a migrant from Eritrea 20 years ago, Fr Zerai shares a certain solidarity with the people he helps.

He fled the repression of Ethiopia's communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had annexed Eritrea.

"My migration was luxurious compared with theirs," he says. He arrived by air, with all the necessary visas, but his motives were the same.

"I wanted to live in a free and democratic country in order to express myself and move around freely."

At the moment he is monitoring an emergency situation in the Sinai region on the border between Egypt and Israel, where refugees from Libya are travelling overland through Egypt to get to Israel.

Many of these refugees, he says, are being seized and held hostage by human traffickers who demand a ransom of up to $20,000 (£12,000) from their families.

He believes that up to 400 people may have died in the Sinai region as a result of kidnapping.

Human response

Although the political reaction to African migrants in Europe has been frosty, at a human level Fr Zerai is encouraged by the reaction of Italians to the destitute people arriving on their shores.

He acknowledges the exceptional response of the Italian coastguard. "They make enormous efforts to help people, even outside our territorial waters," he says.

Image caption A Lampedusa resident lays flowers at the burial ground of a would-be migrant

He is equally encouraged by the response from local islanders in Lampedusa and recalls a recent case where a boat carrying 285 people got into trouble off the coast of Lampedusa with a pregnant woman in labour on board.

He says he alerted the coastguard, who were able to save the boat and airlift the woman safely to hospital.

He also contacted the mass media. Locals who watched the scene unfold donated clothing, blankets and milk to the woman and her newborn baby.

But the numbers arriving on Lampedusa have dwarfed the local population, and Fr Zerai says local people's generosity and patience could be tested, unless they receive more help at a national and European level.

"We have hundreds of refugees but no infrastructure to help them with employment and social integration," he says.

"The people of Lampedusa have received thousands and thousands of Tunisians and other migrants. But they must be encouraged to be generous, not scared off."

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