VATICAN CITY, Mar 30 – A few steps away from St Peter\’s Basilica, an Eritrean Catholic priest is on the phone with boats in the middle of the Mediterranean filled with African refugees fleeing Libya.
Mussie Zerai receives calls from satellite phones on the boats and co-ordinates the arrival of hundreds of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis with Italy\’s coast guard and the NATO warships imposing a naval embargo on Libya.
"This is an emergency," Zerai, told AFP in an interview in his room at the Ethiopian College in the Vatican.
Zerai has been campaigning for years for the rights of refugees from other parts of Africa held in detention camps in Libya.
He said his biggest worry at the moment was a rubber boat with 68 migrants on board.
He last spoke to them on Sunday when the boat was just off Libyan shores and running out of fuel. Now when he calls them the phone rings and no-one answers.
The interview is interrupted by another phone call and there is tension in 36-year-old Zerai\’s voice.
"That was the anxious call of the brother of one of the people who is on the boat that we have known nothing about for days," he said.
Zerai, who five years ago set up Habeshia, a humanitarian association to help immigrants, said Europe should offer asylum to the hundreds who have begun arriving on the shores of Italy and Malta.
"Europe has barricaded itself. I have said it many times. It\’s not by building walls that we can resolve the problem," he said.
But with European governments slow to offer aid or assistance to the thousands of migrants making the perilous journey to Italy\’s tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, Zerai has taken matters into his own hands.
Four boatloads of refugees adrift at sea were rescued this weekend by Italian helicopters and speedboats after Zerai alerted coast-guards, local officials, international aid organisations and the media to their plight.
His rallying cry helped save the life of a mother and newborn baby after a dramatic birth on board a cramped vessel while it was still at sea.
"It was like a miracle. The little boy, born to a Ethiopian mother and Eritrean father, will be called Yeabsera," which means \’gift from God\’, he said.
"He could grow up here. If his parents achieve refugee status he could get Italian citizenship in five years\’ time."
Images of the mother being airlifted off the boat and taken by helicopter to hospital with her newborn baby moved local inhabitants who donated clothes, covers and nourishing milk.
"I don\’t consider myself a saviour, I just act according to my conscience," said Zerai, who emigrated to Italy 20 years ago and was an odd-job man before deciding to studying theology and enter a seminary.
The priest said he remembers his own journey from Eritrea to Italy, setting off from his country "with an enormous sense of liberty" and leaving behind him "a climate of suspicion and mutual fear."
Now is the time for the international community to "get over their selfishness," step up and help those risking their lives fleeing danger, imprisonment or persecution for the safety of Europe\’s shores, he said.