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Eritrean Priest's Mission Takes On New Urgency Amid Migrant Crisis


This next story is about a priest from Eritrea who left his country when he was a teenager and settled in Italy. In the more than 20 years since then, he has saved the lives of countless Africans who are fleeing war and persecution. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that he does this work from a distance.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The cell phone lies on the tabletop. Its ringer is off, but the display lights up for an incoming call.

ABBA MUSSIE ZERAI: I need to - sorry. Hello? Malcolm? (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: The call from Eritrea is to an Italian cell phone number known throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It's even written on the walls of prisons in Libya. The phone belongs to Father Abba Mussie Zerai, better known as Father Moses. Shuttling between Switzerland and Italy, he works on behalf of migrants and refugees.

ZERAI: I try to give my voice for the voiceless peoples.

POGGIOLI: Father Moses, who was said to be among this year's Nobel Peace Prize nominees, tries to convince European authorities that the only way to stand the migrant flow from Africa to Europe is to get at the root of the problems in the countries of origin, be it poverty or dictatorships.

ZERAI: When I receive call from Sudan, from Libya, from Egypt, from Djibouti, from Yemen, I try to find solution for the problem there.

POGGIOLI: By contacting local NGOs. But most of the calls the priest receives are distress calls from migrants adrift in Mediterranean waters onboard unseaworthy vessels provided by human traffickers. He gets as much information as he can from the caller and passes it on to the Italian Coast Guard to arrange a rescue operation. This refugee hotline got its start in 2003. The priest accompanied an Italian journalist on a visit to Libyan prisons where the Gaddafi regime locked up Africans who were trying to reach Europe. When he heard about the abuse they were subjected to, Father Moses left them his phone number. Some European politicians accuse the priest of encouraging illegal immigration.

ZERAI: For me, no one is illegal. These people don't come to Europe for vacation. These people escape from war, from persecution, even from desertification. These people want only to survive. This is the right of any human being.

POGGIOLI: In 2007, Father Moses was declared persona non grata by his homeland, Eritrea, which he says strongman Isaias Afwerki has turned into a prison with mandatory army service. Eritreans are one of the largest national groups fleeing their country.

ZERAI: It's not possible to ask any young man 10, 14, 15, 20 years' service with 10 euro. For months, this is the salary.

POGGIOLI: He's also a sharp critic of Europeans' handling of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. He has repeatedly urged that the EU grant migrants temporary asylum that would eliminate illegal sea crossings and strike a blow at human traffickers.

ZERAI: The embassies can give visa, humanitarian visa, for those people recognized to have the right to receive protection.

POGGIOLI: A European Union summit agreed to a package of emergency aid close to $2 billion for African nations that help stem the migrant flow. Father Moses is very angry there was no discussion of humanitarian corridors or greater protection for Africans fleeing persecution. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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