Eritrean priest Moses Zerai, 36, speaks by phone in March with refugees… (Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Cairo — The frantic satellite phone calls come at all hours to an African priest in Rome from refugees fleeing Libya who find themselves stranded on rickety, overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean.
They have his Italian cellphone number and address him by name, often in his native Eritrean tongue or in Amharic, the language of neighboring Ethiopia. During the last two months, word has spread among sub-Saharan refugees that if they get stranded at sea, Father Moses Zerai, 36, is the one to call for help.
When the calls come, often from migrants who cannot swim and are on the ocean for the first time, Zerai gathers details and relays their location and phone number to the Italian coast guard, emphasizing the urgency of each rescue.
"Sometimes they say to me there is a problem with the motor, no food, no water," said Zerai, who became a priest last year after a decade of study. "My job is to assist these people."
Zerai and aid workers say the Italian coast guard has saved many of those stranded at sea, but has been overwhelmed in recent weeks as the tide of migrants fleeing the fighting and food shortages has increased.
In 2008, Italy and Libya reached an agreement that would-be migrants intercepted at sea would be returned to Libya without screening for asylum. The agreement, criticized by refugee groups, reduced the number of migrants arriving in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to 4,300 last year.
Now the ranks are back on the upswing. About 10,300 migrants have already arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa from Libya this year, and an additional 24,000 from Tunisia, according to the International Organization for Migration. They have been transferred to reception centers for processing.
The outflow from Libya is unusual compared with typical refugee crises because most of those fleeing are not Libyans, but third country nationals, low-wage manual workers in Libya who come from sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and Bangladesh to work in such trades as car repair, plumbing and sanitation.
Last week, refugees said a ship carrying nearly 600 people, many from Somalia, broke down and sank in the harbor off the coast of Tripoli. Hundreds were presumed dead, refugee agencies said.
Between 10 and 15 migrants aboard the boat reportedly made it back to shore, where, they claimed, Libyan soldiers forced them to board another boat to Lampedusa. Once there, they were detained, refugee officials said.
The U.N. has received other reports of refugees being forced at gunpoint by Libyan soldiers to board boats in Tripoli that were "unfit for the journey" and "overcrowded beyond belief," said U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming in Geneva.
Rebels in eastern Libya accused the Kadafi regime of forcing migrants onto boats as a form of retaliation against Italy and France, which are both participating in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization air campaign against government forces. "The people are being forced to get on boats by the regime," Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a rebel press representative, said by telephone from Benghazi.
Smuggling routes for migrants from Libya to Italy are long established, with migrants paying between $1,000 and $1,500 each, refugee advocates said. It was not clear how much migrants have paid recently. Some said smugglers have taken them for free, in what rebel officials say is an effort by Libyan officials to rid the country of African migrants.
The U.N. estimates that 10% of migrants who have set sail with smugglers since late March, when NATO airstrikes began, have drowned, including at least 800 people lost at sea in three sinkings before the Friday incident.
Five boats carrying 2,400 people have been rescued in recent days near Lampedusa, the closest European point to Libya.
"They are being sent off without any captain. There might be someone initially steering the boat but then they get off [while still close to shore], give them a compass and point them in the direction of Lampedusa," Fleming said.
The U.N. has accused the Libyan government of failing to stop the deadly smuggling. A Kadafi spokesman has said his government cannot restrict immigration, given the NATO attacks. He could not be reached by phone or email late Wednesday.
As part of its enforcement of an arms embargo against Libya, NATO said Wednesday that 20 ships under its command are actively patrolling the central Mediterranean, blanketing much of the coast of Libya. NATO says it has provided assistance to two migrant vessels, transporting more than 500 people.
"We're seeing so many people so desperate to leave, or being forced to leave, that ships' captains are going out of their way to keep an eye out for these vessels," said a NATO official in Brussels, who could not be named under alliance press guidelines.
NATO officials have denied allegations by Zerai and others that they refused to aid a boat of migrants in late March, on which 61 people later died of starvation and dehydration.