The PRO ASYL-hand 2016 goes to the Eritrean priest Father Mussie Zerai, who has been helping refugees in distress at sea for years. Photo: Andelka Krizanovic

The catholic priest Father Mussie Zerai has been helping refugees in distress at sea for more than ten years. His mobile phone number is being etched into Libyan prison walls – it has been called already thousands of times, by desperate people in mortal danger. On Saturday Zerai has received PRO ASYL's human rights award for his commitment.

Having fled as an ado­lescent from Eri­trea to Ita­ly hims­elf, in 2003 Mus­sie Zer­ai came into con­ta­ct with com­pa­tri­ots on their way to Euro­pe, stuck in a Liby­an pri­son. He left them his mobi­le pho­ne num­ber, which sin­ce then spread among refugees.

Count­less times Father Mus­sie Zer­ai has noted the coor­di­na­tes of a boat and han­ded tho­se to the Ita­li­an coast guard, to faci­li­ta­te res­cue. Thousands of peop­le owe their lives to him.

»Mus­sie Zer­ai is a lifes­aver, a pioneer for huma­ni­ty and justice.«

Maxi­mi­li­an Popp, journalist

Addi­tio­nal­ly he foun­ded an aid orga­niz­a­ti­on in Ita­ly cal­led »Agen­zia Habeshia«. When a ship can­not be saved, he remains acti­ve and addres­ses the public with his orga­niz­a­ti­on, to put pres­su­re on tho­se respon­si­ble. »I have rea­li­zed that I can­not only extin­guish the small fla­mes, but have to put out the who­le fire«, said Zer­ai in an inter­view as rea­so­ning for beco­m­ing poli­ti­cal­ly acti­ve abo­ve and bey­ond pure emer­gen­cy aid.

»I would like to rai­se my voice for tho­se that have none.«

Mus­sie Zerai

The PRO ASYL-hand: Human rights award of the PRO ASYL Foundation

For his com­mit­ment Mus­sie Zer­ai recei­ved the human rights award of the PRO ASYL Foun­da­ti­on, the PRO ASYL-hand. Sin­ce 2006 the PRO ASYL Foun­da­ti­on awards this pri­ce endo­wed with 5.000 Euros. It honors indi­vi­du­als which pro­mo­te respect for human rights and pro­tec­tion of refu­gees in out­stan­ding ways.

»Mus­sie Zerai’s out­stan­ding com­mit­ment goes bey­ond huma­ni­ta­ri­an help in sin­gle cases. Every fai­led res­cue attempt is cau­se for him to rai­se his voice publicly and to remind poli­ti­ci­ans in Euro­pe of their respon­si­bi­li­ty for the pro­tec­tion of refugees.«

Andre­as Lipsch, chair­man PRO ASYL
Father Musai Zer­ai recei­ves the PRO ASYL-hand 2016 from Andre­as Lipsch (chair­man of the PRO ASYL Foun­da­ti­on). Pho­to: Andel­ka Krizanovic

This year’s award cere­mo­ny on Satur­day, the 17th of Sep­tem­ber 2016 in Frank­furt am Main, was not only about the recipient’s merits, but also about the cur­rent situation.

Criticism of European policy

While Mus­sie Zer­ai recei­ves and ans­wers calls for help from despe­ra­te refu­gees, dis­cus­sions in Brussels take place to end­less­ly deba­te how peop­le can be stop­ped from cros­sing the Medi­ter­ra­ne­an most effectively.

»Euro­pe pays money to Afri­can des­pots to do the dir­ty work for the EU.«

Mus­sie Zerai

Mus­sie Zer­ai addres­sed this in his accep­t­ance speech and cri­ti­ci­zed that the Euro­pean Uni­on, along the model of the EU-Tur­key deal, plans fur­ther part­ners­hips with coun­tries like Sudan and Eri­trea. Euro­pe pays money to Afri­can des­pots to do the dir­ty work.

Zer­ai war­ned urgent­ly against the dest­ruc­tion of the Euro­pean dream of being an oasis for human rights and social jus­ti­ce. That is also why his tireless efforts are so important, sin­ce he reminds the respon­si­ble poli­ti­ci­ans con­ti­nuous­ly of their obli­ga­ti­ons to human rights.

»The mass dying of refu­gees on Europe’s exter­nal bor­ders is no acci­dent, but the direct result of Euro­pean policy.«

Maxi­mi­li­an Popp, journalist

Lau­da­to­ry spea­ker Maxi­mi­li­an Popp, who ack­now­led­ged Mus­sie Zerai’s com­mit­ment, addres­sed the­se poli­ci­es too: »The mass dying of refu­gees on Europe’s exter­nal bor­ders is no acci­dent, but the direct result of Euro­pean poli­cy. The Ger­man Basic Law and the Euro­pean Char­ter of Fun­da­men­tal Rights pro­mi­se pro­tec­tion for all that flee from war or per­se­cu­ti­on. But the EU mem­ber sta­tes have been tor­pe­do­ing this right for years. Who wants to app­ly for asyl­um in Euro­pe must reach Euro­pean ter­ri­to­ry first. Exact­ly this has beco­me almost impos­si­ble becau­se of Europe’s walls-up policy.«

Mussie Zerai: Example for others

Popp cal­led on all citi­zens who are inte­res­ted in an open, soli­da­ry socie­ty, to fol­low Mus­sie Zerai’s examp­le and fight for more huma­ni­ty. Some have alrea­dy done so:

Decisi­ve­ly infor­med by his examp­le, acti­vists of the moni­to­ring-pro­ject »Watch the Med« have in 2014 estab­lis­hed ano­t­her hot­line for refu­gees in dis­tress at sea, the »Alarm Pho­ne«. Fur­ther­mo­re the catho­lic priest remains reach­a­ble for calls for help around the clock.