The African shepherd | Moses Zerai

Fr Moses Zerai, founder and coordinator of Eritrean refugee agency Habeshia, spends his time tracing lost relatives of migrants who never arrived to their destinations. He also lobbies with governments to intervene, rescue or protect migrants trapped in situations between life and death.

Stranded in a country torn apart by a raging civil war, hundreds of Sub-Saharan migrants remain abandoned to an uncertain fate by the international community.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) some 8,000 between Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis remain trapped inside Libya with nobody to care for them.

Already refugees from civil wars in their own countries, hundreds of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis are vagabonds in the devastated streets of Misurata and Adjabya, often falling victims of crossfire between the rebels and the pro-Gaddafi forces. Some are mistaken to be African mercenaries, and meet a horrific death by lynching.

Around Tripoli, hundreds of other migrants roam the coastal areas, waiting to board rickety boats and embark on a treacherous voyage to Europe.

Men, women and children cram inside old and unseaworthy fishing boats with the hope of reaching a life-long dream.

The Eritrean community is rather close-knit, with all of its members looking out for each other. A name common to all is that of Moses Zerai, a Christian pastor who founded – and who now heads – a refugee coordination agency called Habeshia, which operates from within Vatican walls.

Fr Zerai is considered to be an authority on migrant issues, and spends most of his time tracing lost relatives of migrants who never arrived to their destinations. He also lobbies with governments to intervene, rescue or protect migrants trapped in situations between life and death.

Fr Zerai has had his fair share of wars during the early ‘90s – when Eritrea was in conflict with Ethiopia – and grew up in Asmara, witnessing millions of displaced persons, all fleeing the fighting.

“The war and drought brought great famine to Eritrea and Ethiopia, and millions have fled and pushed North towards Libya, through Sudan,” he explains.

In order to reach Libya, one must cross the hot Sahara desert.

“In temperatures that often reach 50 degrees, hundreds of displaced Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis submit themselves to the ruthless hands of human traffickers.”

The migrants are forced to pay hundreds of dollars to be allowed onto the trucks that drive through the Sahara, and many times are even asked to pay again, or are robbed of all their possessions while they’re half way through the desert.

“Those who wouldn’t have anything left to pay would be left to die in the Sahara without food or water. They just die like dogs and the Sahara is littered with human remains.”

Fr Zerai squints in a clear gesture of horror at the simple thought of the plight of his brethren as they desperately attempt to flee their country.

“This is not just simple migration, this is a reality which Europe must wake up to. These people do not just dream of leaving their country...

They are displaced, persecuted men, women and children, all desperate to seek protection,” he says.

And once they get to Libya?

“This displacement has been going on for years, and being in Libya has exposed these refugees to further suffering.

“The men would seek odd jobs to earn some money but ultimately they all aim to leave Libya and reach Europe, because that is where they know they can be protected.

“But Europe has closed the doors for them, and because some politicians just regard them as migrants and not as legitimate refugees, they are pushed back and straight into the hands of ruthless security forces who throw them into prisons, torture and exploit them.”

According to Fr Zerai, the agreement reached in 2005 between Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Libya’s Col. Gaddafi for migrant pushbacks has caused even more suffering for the refugees than one can ever imagine.

“These refugees would have paid all they had managed to earn through hard and underpaid labour during their stay in Libya to the police and the traffickers to put them on a boat for Italy or Malta, and when pushed back they would be sent straight to prison and beaten without mercy so that those who remained on the outside would pay again to have them released.”

Fr Zerai is angry at the fact that Europe backed Italy and Malta for the pushback policy.

“What Europe is this? Where is the principle of solidarity? Where is the example from the champion of human rights?”

“Europe knows well that these are legitimate refugees who have no home and only seek resettlement, and the answer they are being given is ‘we don’t want you here’.”

The newly-erupted war in Libya has put these refugees in a worse situation, because they have nobody to look after them and worse, they were simply left abandoned to their fate.

“What Europe doesn’t know – or perhaps really doesn’t want to know – is that by closing its borders, it has pushed the migrants into further desperation because they have been put straight into the hands of other traffickers who have changed their routes.”

“What I can tell you is that these refugees are fleeing the war in Libya by paying the traffickers to get them through Egypt and the Sinai, where they are eventually sold into the hands of others who torture them to get more money out of them.”

Fr Zerai says that he is currently engaged in seeking the Egyptian and Israeli government to intervene and free some 200 Eritrean refugees who are held hostage in the Sinai and who are dying at the hands of ruthless men.

“The traffickers beat the refugees, torture them with electric shocks, rape the women and steal the organs from children to get money out of them,” he says.

“The traffickers would lead the refugees to a telephone and make them beg to have money transferred from family and friends they may have in Europe. They would beat them while on the phone so that whoever is on the other end would hear them scream in pain and wire the money.”

“It is a horrible situation, and I know of cases where some have succumbed to the torture and their bodies just disposed of like garbage in the desolate rocky and hot environment of the Sinai.”

Fr Zerai questions Europe’s heart:

“How could the European states even turn their heads at this reality? Where is their heart?” he asks.

He is also angered at the fact that the EU talks too much and doesn’t act according to its values.

“There simply is no political will to address this reality. Europe just ignores the existence of these human beings! We are talking about human beings here, and not some piece of paper which one throws away...”

As he also levels his criticism at Frontex, the EU’s agency for border control.

“This is an agency created specifically to keep refugees out and deny them the right to resettlement.”

The Eritrean priest expresses his frustration to see how those refugees who have managed to somehow reach either Italy or Malta are being treated.

“I know that the situation in Italy is bad, but nothing can be compared to what I have seen at the Hal Far detention centre... I am utterly shocked to see men, women and children in a hangar and kept in such squalid conditions.”

“Children are playing on filthy floors, their mothers are telling me that they are getting sick because of infections and irritations, while the hygienic conditions are appalling with open sewers and rats that come out at night.”

Zerai claims to have seen dead rats in corners, while water from showers that are oddly built on higher ground from the sleeping areas just floods the place.

“I have witnessed situations where women are placed in a container in the heart of an all-male camp, and they told me that recently a group who had drank too much barged their way into the container and attempted to rape them. While these men were taken out by other migrants in the camp, the next day the women asked to have a lock on their door, only to be told that they would have to pay for it. I have met migrants who have just been released from detention and they claim to have been kept prisoners and given only one hour a day of fresh air.

“I know of children being held in detention, and pregnant women who, as soon as they give birth in hospital, are returned to detention with their babies and the men would have to protest with the guards to have them allow the women more fresh air.”

Fr Zerai appealed to the Maltese government to be more sensitive to these people.

“They have committed no crime and they are treated like criminals. These are human beings, who have been so unfortunate to come from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia. They have fled a war and got caught up in other wars, besides being exploited, tortured and beaten by ruthless human traffickers.”

He claims that the Maltese authorities denied him to take any photographs of the camps he was taken to visit.

But Fr Zerai’s major concern at the moment is the situation at sea, where refugees are reportedly being ignored by NATO vessels who are currently enforcing a naval blockade on Libya.

“It is very serious to note how NATO vessels are not assisting the refugees at sea, obviously because they don’t want to take them on board and become their problem.”

“But why do we consider refugees as a problem?” Fr Zerai asks.

He denounces the “heartless” attitude by NATO warships in the Mediterranean to simply ignore the calls for help by the refugees.

“You have a case in Malta where a woman has died on a boat before being rescued by the Armed Forces because the NATO ships did not offer assistance, and we have cases of refugees who were rescued by the Italian coast guards in Lampedusa who also were ignored by the NATO ships. These boats were denied assistance and left to wonder in distress for days in the open seas, some dying, others giving birth at sea in such conditions...”

Fr Zerai has already formalised a report to the authorities in Italy where he has asked for an investigation into the alleged crime of denied rescue by NATO, and is now in the process of gathering information from the refugees who landed in Malta and went through the similar ordeal of being denied rescue and assistance by NATO.

“I know that the Armed Forces of Malta inform the NATO Command in Naples whenever a distress call comes in by satellite phone from a refugee boat, and it is clear that there is no response, because these boats are eventually taken in by either the Maltese or the Italian Coast Guard.”

“There are so many navy ships out there, and it is impossible that no migrant boat is ever assisted...”

He asks why a Canadian navy ship intercepted a refugee boat some four weeks ago, had a crew board it, gave the refugees water and biscuits and a pump to expel the seeping water, only to then just leave, telling them to proceed further.

“Did they know that the refugees expected to be rescued? Did they know that just giving them water and biscuits was ridiculous, and that the refugees spent another five days just drifting on the high seas before finally being rescued?”

Fr Zerai insists that he will not cease to obtain explanations from NATO over these allegations by the refugees.

“I want answers, I seek justice, because we are talking about human beings, and I will not rest until we all understand that a human has dignity and life must be respected at all times, irrespective of race or creed,” he concludes.

More in Interview
avatar
This is how the power behind politics is failing humanity, whether the turmoil in the country of origin of the refugees or in the ivory towers of brussels and Washington. While the rich get richer the poor gets poorer, yet there's more than enough to go round for everyone if golbal wealth is distributed more equally. Humankind is failing itself.
avatar
God only know why they keep on escaping from Africa and reach these cruel and hostile lands of the North rather then vice versa! On a serious note. I feel for these people but Europe can't keep on taking more immigrants. Its time for them to solve their problems and fight their wars rather then just escape from them. Its hard and its difficult, I mean I lost a great parent during the WW2. But that is the only way forward. If they want to complain then they should be complaining for Europe's lack of assistance in helping them fight their wars (just like the Libyans did).
avatar
Its always the European fault.....Damn them!