Rome (AFP) – An Eritrean priest once in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize for helping migrants is now under investigation in Italy on suspicion of abetting illegal immigration.
“I received a letter from the Trapani public prosecutor’s office on Monday informing me of the investigation,” Mussie Zerai told AFP in Rome, insisting that he was innocent.
After fleeing Eritrea as a youngster and arriving in Italy alone aged 16, Zerai entered the seminary aged 45 and became a reference point for migrants in distress for a period of almost 15 years.
For a long time, his was the only telephone number many had to call for emergency assistance.
Don Mose would sometimes receive dozens of calls for help per day, mostly from migrants in distress calling from a satellite phone from their rickety vessels at sea.
He would transmit the coordinates of the stricken boats to the Italian coast guard but also sometimes to the privately-run rescue ships known to be in the vicinity.
That is likely the reason his name ended up in a probe Trapani prosecutors have opened into illegal immigration which focuses largely on the roles played in migrant rescues by the privately-funded NGOs.
The investigation lead to the seizure last week of a boat run by German NGO Jugend Rettet, which is accused of having had direct contact with traffickers off the coast of Libya.
“It’s totally contradictory to attack the humanitarian organisations to fight illegal immigration. It’s like protesting against diseases by taking it out on the doctors,” Zerai said.
“Instead we should tackle the causes of the disease (illegal immigration), which make these people desperate enough to risk their lives at sea,” he added.
He referred in particular to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Uganda, with barely enough food and water to survive and little hope of a better future.
“There is a famine going on in the Horn of Africa, the dictatorship, the war … there will always be refugees, you cannot just tell them ‘don’t come, keep your suffering away from us’.
“Africans also have the right to live and have a future,” he said.