An Italian priest known as the ‘guardian angel’ of refugees has sounded a desperate SOS for migrants trapped in Libyan detention centres.

Driving the news

Father Mussie Zerai, the president of Habeshia – a humanitarian organisation that defends migrants and refugees – reposted on the organisation’s blog January 10 the dramatic testimony of hundreds of asylum seekers stuck on the journey from Africa to Europe.

“About 650 people, women and men of different nationalities, including 400 Eritreans and Ethiopians, live constantly in fear, because we continuously hear gunshots nearby, we are closed here, without protection, without escape routes in case of attack, we risk our lives”, the heartbreaking first-hand report reads.

“Our concentration camp is also used as a weapons depot. This fact increases the risk that we become a probable military target.

“Between 27 and 28 December they bombed some structures very close to ours; this fact increases the terror that pervades all of us”, the migrants pleaded.

The big picture

Zerai, of Eritrean descent himself but now resident in Rome, has earned the nickname “Father Moses” or the “refugees’ guardian angel” for his almost twenty years’ dedication to desperate migrants seeking to cross over to Europe.

It all started in 2003, when the priest received a phone call from a journalist investigating the plight of Eritrean refugees detained in a Libyan prison.

One of the refugees wrote Zerai’s number on a jail wall, with a simple message: “Call here if you’re in trouble”.

The priest’s number spread like wildfire among the Muslim, Orthodox and Christian refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and other African countries confined in the Libyan torture prisons, and from there to all the asylum seekers who attempt the risky voyage from north Africa to Italy.

Since then, Zerai’s phone rings off the hook 24 hours a day, with desperate pleas for help from migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, whose location the priest relays to the Italian Coast Guard, who then go looking for the boats.

Zerai’s compassion for the damned of the Mediterranean has earned him a nomination for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, but also the formal accusation in 2017 that he works for the people smugglers, a charge he emphatically denies.

Go deeper

In this latest appeal republished by Zerai, the detainees in Libya denounced that they are living “in a pigsty”.

“We haven’t received any personal hygiene items for months. We are forced to drink salt water and we don’t know where it comes from. Health problems are commonplace; the worst are those who have contracted tuberculosis”, the migrants alerted.

The refugees then went on to describe in graphic detail the suffering of their companions “wasting away before our eyes, as if they were candles being burned by the illness, consuming them from the inside”.

“Now we feel abandoned, many of us have fallen into depression, others try to escape to take the sea route, all from the desperation in which we are left to survive”, the migrants denounced.

“We have cases of attempted suicide, among those who have been here for a year and more, forced to move from one concentration camp to another, without seeing a opening for their future”, the asylum seekers decried.

What’s next

Zerai made his own the trapped migrants’ call for “the help of all European institutions and humanitarian agencies to mobilize to find and implement an extraordinary evacuation plan”.

“Every hesitation and postponement endangers hundreds of human lives”, Zerai and the migrants pleaded.

“We live in constant danger, not to mention privations, and are forced to survive in conditions degrading for our human dignity”, the asylum seekers deplored.

For the record

Pope Francis has been tirelessly advocating for the closure of the Libyan refugee detention camps, most recently in his welcome address to migrants brought to the Vatican via the humanitarian corridor of Church group Sant’Egidio last December 19.

“Serious efforts must be made to empty the detention camps in Libya, evaluating and implementing all possible solutions “, the Pope said on that occasion.

He added: “We must denounce and prosecute traffickers who exploit and abuse migrants, without fear of revealing their collusion and complicity with institutions”.

“How can we fail to hear the desperate cry of so many brothers and sisters who prefer to face a stormy sea rather than die slowly in Libyan detention camps, places of torture and ignoble slavery?

“How can we remain indifferent to the abuses and violence of which they are innocent victims, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous traffickers?

“How can we ‘go further’, like the priest and the Levite of the parable of the Good Samaritan, making ourselves responsible for their death? Our indifference is a sin!”, Francis decried.

Next on Novena:

Pope warns on migrant, human trafficking crises: “Our indifference is a sin!”

Italian Bishops: attack on Libyan refugee “concentration camp” a “deplorable act of inhumanity”

Churches push EU on migrants: “Exercise solidarity, share responsibility, show leadership”

Eritrean priest in Rome laments EU “walls” to forced migrants and refugees

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.