A nomadic priest who drifts from place to place looking for refugees to help is the unlikely rival to Pope Francis for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fr Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean catholic priest has been nominated for the 2015 prize for his role in helping migrants trying to reach Europe. Fr Zerai, 60, has been a running a hot-line for the migrants, who have been undertaking the deadly voyages across the Sahara Desert and turbulent waters of the sea waters that separate Africa and Europe.
He has also set up a center to receive distress calls from migrants trapped in the desert or sinking boats in the sea waters. The priest has been nominated alongside Pope Francis, whose nomination is pegged on his focus on social justice and the environment.
Fr Zerai’s nomination has been announced at a time the migration has become an international humanitarian disaster. This year so far, 3,000 migrants have died on dangerous sea voyages, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Observers say the deaths are expected to rise as the cold season approaches.
The priest is also known to advocate for refugees across Europe, who are forced to live in squalid conditions or face hostility in the countries. He is said to lack a permanent residence and is often moving between Switzerland and the Vatican, according to news reports, seeking help for the refugees.
He began his mission in 2003 when he gave his phone number to a group of migrants after helping an Italian journalist interview refugees in prison in Libya during the reign of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Zerai has said in news reports that when the migrants realized he was interested in them, they began distributing his phone number with the message; For emergency, call this number.
Today, the number is in the hands of most migrants being held in camps and detention centres in Africa. Hundreds of migrants have also called the hot-line seeking his help. When he receives the calls, he finds the GPS location of the phone the migrants are using, then distribute it to Italian and Maltese coastguards.
“I don’t encourage anyone to come Italy or Europe in general….,” he recently told the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “These people must flee in order to save their lives.”
Fr Zerai was born in Eritrea in 1955 and like many migrants, he had fled the country’s dictatorial regime for Italy where he had hoped to join his father. Unable to find his father who had left for Africa, Fr Zerai became a teenage refugee.
It was while there that he met an Italian priest who was helping migrants. The encounter with the priest rekindled his interest in priesthood. In 2000, at the age of 35, Zerai joined a seminary in Italy, for formation as a priest.
In 2006, Zerai setup Agenzia Hebeshia, a charitable trust to campaign for the refugees in North Africa and help others in Italy get asylum.
In North Africa, many migrants are captured by traffickers who seek ransom from their families. Those who cannot afford the ransom are killed and their body parts harvested for sell.
The priest has told the BBC that if he wins, the prize money would help him expand his work to give voice to the voiceless.