The first phone call came at 04.30 in the morning one day in 2006. It was summer – usually the most intensive period of migrants’ landings on the Italian coasts. They were in trouble out at sea in the Mediterranean and were calling for help. The Eritrean woman who received the call, and who had migrated to Italy some years before, had no idea how these people could have got her phone number. Despite the possibility of it being considered as aiding and abetting illegal immigration, she immediately called the local police and informed them about what was happening. They contacted the coastguards who ensured that the boat reached safety on the island of Lampedusa. After this event she kept on receiving phone calls from migrants at sea and the coastguards always responded. The last time she was contacted for help was in November 2009 but this time the boat never arrived.
Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest living in Rome, has received similar phone calls. The migrants contacting him were initially Ethiopians and Eritreans living in Italy but from 2002 he started receiving phone calls directly from the boats crossing the sea. Despite telephones generally not being trusted for confidential communication by Eritreans, they are fundamental for the Eritrean diaspora in moments of emergency. In late 2010 Mussie Zerai started receiving calls from refugees living in Europe whose migrating family members had been kidnapped in the Sinai area and who were being asked for up to US$8,000 dollars per person in ransom.1 Those being blackmailed gave him their relatives’ phone numbers and he was able to talk directly to the kidnapped migrants. Armed with their first-hand accounts, Father Mussie has not only been supporting the relatives but has also been campaigning through his organisation, Habeshia Agency2, to get the European Union and other organisations to create ‘humanitarian corridors’ and increase provision of resettlement to help avoid more refugees taking such risks.
Virginia Signorini (email@example.com) has worked since 2005 as a social worker within Italy’s System of Protection for Asylum Seekers and Refugees. She is a PhD student at the University of Trieste.