Helps thousands of boat refugees in distress at sea: the Eritrean priest and refugee aid worker Father Mussie Zerai. Photo: Reuters/ Alessandro Bianchi

For many, his number is the last hope: the PRO ASYL Foundation awards its human rights award 2016 to the priest and refugee aid worker Mussie Zerai, who has been involved in the rescue of refugees in distress at sea for more than ten years with unparalleled effort.

Mus­sie Zer­ai knows what it means to arri­ve in a for­eign socie­ty. He was 16 years old when he arri­ved in Ita­ly in 1992 as a refu­gee. In the first years he deli­vers news­pa­pers, sells fruit, and trans­la­tes for a Bri­tish priest. Later he stu­dies theo­lo­gy and phi­lo­so­phy. After his ordi­na­ti­on to priest­hood the Catho­lic Church in Rome sends him to Switz­er­land as a minister.

Fate of refugees won’t let go of him

When an Ita­li­an jour­na­list asks him in 2003 if he could help him as an inter­pre­ter in a Liby­an pri­son, Zer­ai for the first time comes into con­ta­ct with Eri­tre­an refu­gees on their way to Euro­pe. The sto­ries of his com­pa­tri­ots won’t let go of him from then on and he sees it as his duty to help.

Calls in dire distress

Soon after his visit to pri­son he recei­ves calls from peop­le he met the­re and a litt­le later also from refu­gees in dis­tress at sea. Someo­ne had etched Mus­sie Zer­ai’s pho­ne num­ber into a pri­son wall with the note: »In emer­gen­ci­es, call this number!«

»Dear Baba, help us quickly«

So sin­ce 2004 the pho­ne num­ber of the dedi­ca­ted priest is the last hope for many boat peop­le – and in many cases instru­men­tal in their res­cue. »Dear Baba, help us quick­ly. We have no food, no water and the mobi­le pho­ne bat­te­ry is almost empty«, Mus­sie Zer­ai has recei­ved thousands of dis­tress calls like this for more than ten years.

»When I hear that someo­ne is in dis­tress, then it is my human respon­si­bi­li­ty to help.«

Father Mus­sie Zerai

Saved thousands of lives

When calls from dis­tress at sea reach him, Zer­ai immedia­te­ly con­ta­cts the Ita­li­an coast guard. He lear­ned quick­ly what is important, if a res­cue attempt is to be suc­cess­ful. The Ita­li­an coast guard esti­ma­tes that Mus­sie Zer­ai has saved the lives of several thousand peop­le to this day. The priest can be reached around the clock. When he sleeps, his mobi­le pho­ne sits on his night stand, when he cele­bra­tes mass, someo­ne „guards“ it for him.

Hold the responsible accountable

In 2006 Zer­ai foun­ded the aid orga­niz­a­ti­on „Agen­zia Habeshia“ in Ita­ly, who­se task it is, among other things, to sup­port migrants and refu­gees in their dealings with aut­ho­ri­ties and in mat­ters of inte­gra­ti­on. Soon Zer­ai and his orga­niz­a­ti­on also enga­ge in lob­by­ing and public rela­ti­ons work, he speaks on the radio and tele­vi­si­on, wri­tes to poli­ti­ci­ans and aid orga­niz­a­ti­ons. It is important for him to hold the peop­le respon­si­ble accoun­ta­ble. Asked for his moti­va­ti­on, Zer­ai sim­ply ans­wers: »When I hear that someo­ne is in dis­tress, then it is my human respon­si­bi­li­ty to help.«

Commitment that inspires others

Mus­sie Zer­ai’s com­mit­ment inspi­res imi­ta­ti­on: 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“. The PRO ASYL Foun­da­ti­on honors Mus­sie Zer­ai and his tireless effort for the res­cue and admis­si­on of refu­gees in dis­tress at sea with its human rights award 2016.