‘Migrants are not adventurers or tourists’

Since the beginning of the year, 16,900 migrants have landed in Italy, among them many women and children Keystone

Europe has the wrong approach for containing the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, an Eritrean priest nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize tells Mussie Zerai says instead of closing the door, the EU should be offering more protection to those fleeing. 

This content was published on April 28, 2015 minutes

Zerai, known for his work with migrants and refugees, is exhausted. He says he has had enough of the deaths in the Mediterranean, the human traffickers and the “hypocritical” attitude of the international community. 

On Tuesday the resident of the Swiss town of Erlinsbach, canton Solothurn, addressed the European Parliament. Zerai spoke to a few days before. European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to treble the budget of Operation Triton, which restricts its border controls to 30 nautical miles off the Italian coast. Will more money be enough to put an end to the tragedies? 

Mussie Zerai: No, because neither the nature nor mandate of Triton has changed – it remains a system of border surveillance. It does not involve looking for and saving people, unlike Operation Mare Nostrum [which was ended six months ago]. Could Mare Nostrum have avoided last weekend’s tragedy? 

M.Z.: I think so. The people who provided help with Mare Nostrum knew what to do. Now, commercial ships change course [to pick up any survivors] but the crews aren’t trained for this type of work. You just have to compare the first months of 2015 with the same period in 2014: this year more than 1,700 people have died already; last year it was 54. And you can’t say that the tide of migrants was less. 

Catholic priest Mussie Zerai says 'every country should assume its responsibilities' AFP What do you think of the EU’s ten-point action planExternal link on migration in the Mediterranean?

M.Z.: The starting point is wrong: they’re discussing how to close the doors and not how to protect people who are fleeing their countries. The EU says it wants to deal jointly with asylum requests in Greece and Italy, but at the same time Britain declares that it won’t take in anyone. If everyone acted like that, where would we take the people who are rescued? 

The EU’s plan will only make sense if each country assumes its own responsibility. They all have to do their part. Not only regarding rescuing refugees, but also welcoming them. For example, each country should take in a given number of shipwreck survivors a year. Some people suggest destroying the boats of the human traffickers before they set to sea. What do think of that?

M.Z.: It’s a good idea, but how do you do it? The project presupposes the collaboration of the country in question. But in the case of Libya, the government recognised by the international community doesn’t have any control over the country. The alternative is to declare war. 

However, even if the boats are destroyed in Libya, there are others in Tunisia, in Algeria. It’s a cosmetic procedure which doesn’t address the causes of the exodus. We can build all the walls we want – the traffickers will think of ways through. Is the creation of humanitarian corridors between Europe and the North African refugee camps part of the solution? 

M.Z.: Refugee camps in Africa already exist. They are badly run and have become a catchment area for human traffickers. It’s pointless building similar structures. Instead of protecting people, we’re putting them in danger. Nor can we drain Africa by organising ferries. You have to get to the root of the problem. How? 

M.Z.: By using all the possible means to put an end to the dictatorships in Africa. I am a priest and therefore oppose military interventions, but pressure can be exerted on other levels – political, diplomatic, economic – and support given to the opposition movements which want to develop a democratic system. The recent shipwreck shocked the public, but how many migrants die before even getting on a boat? 

M.Z.: There aren’t any figures. Many die in the desert, in prison. [The other day] people called me from Misrata [on the Libyan coast]. They told me that a group of 60 refugees had clashed with local forces who were trying to grab the “merchandise”. Three Eritrean boys died. And the day before, 50 women were kidnapped by armed men. No one knows where they are going to end up. You have lived in Switzerland since 2011. What do you expect from the Swiss government? 

M.Z.: That it does its part, taking in a quota of these people and participating in the search for solutions in the countries of origin. Last year Switzerland rigorously applied the Dublin agreement [an EU law that determines the member state responsible for examining asylum applications] and sent 2,000 Eritreans back to Italy. But welcoming people on their own territory is a form of solidarity, not only with the asylum seekers but also with Italy. What will be your message to the European Parliament? 

M.Z.: First of all, change the mentality with which you have made choices. Migrants and refugees are not adventurers or tourists. We’re dealing with people who are fleeing because they don’t have a future in their country and who are trying to save their skin. 

Let’s go into the countries of origin and look for solutions. Sure, it will take time, therefore there needs to be an interim project to protect people in transit countries and to create decent living conditions and work and study opportunities in neighbouring countries. 

It will then be necessary to change the instruments with which one deals with these dramas. Start with the Dublin agreement. You can’t trap these people in countries like Greece or Italy which aren’t in a position to offer a dignified welcome. If someone has a relative in Switzerland or Sweden, they should be able to join them. It’s not surprising to see so many children and pregnant women on the boats – it’s become hard for them to obtain visas for family reunions. Don’t you think it strange that a priest is speaking at the European Parliament about migrants and refugees? 

M.Z.: No, given that the parliament is meant to be for everyone, a space where solutions are sought. What I find strange is that a priest has to intervene in this manner. Maybe it should be a parliamentarian that does something…

Mussie Zerai

Mussie Zerai was born in 1975 in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. 

When he was 16, he applied for asylum in Italy. At Rome he studied theology and philosophy before starting to help migrants from the Horn of Africa who reached Italy. 

In 2006, together with some friends, he founded Habeshia, an agency whose aim is to support migrants and refugees and help their integration. 

He was ordained a priest in 2010, becoming the voice of thousands of people fleeing their own country, reporting the crimes of which these people are victims to the authorities and international organisations. 

Zerai has been nominated by the Peace Research Institute Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize 2015. 

He has lived in Switzerland for three years, first in Fribourg and currently at Erlinsbach, canton Solothurn, where he carries out his pastoral mission for the Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora.

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Sea operations

Mare Nostrum (October 2013-November 2014)

Aim: saving migrants at sea

Countries involved: Italy

Budget: €9.5 million (CHF9.85 million) per month (114 in total)

Resources: 32 navy ships; two submarines; helicopters and planes

Staffed by: 900 armed forces personnel each day on a 24-hour basis

Range of operation: territorial waters and international waters off Libya


Triton (launched November 2014)

Aim: patrolling frontiers and fighting people-smuggling

Countries involved: 15, including Switzerland

Budget: €2.9 million per month. On April 23, EU leaders agreed to treble funding to €9 million

Resources: seven ships, two planes and a helicopter

Staffed by: number unknown

Range of operation: 30 miles off the Italian coast

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