From file: Migrants from Senegal in Rabat, Morocco | Photo: AFP PHOTO/FADEL SENNA
From file: Migrants from Senegal in Rabat, Morocco | Photo: AFP PHOTO/FADEL SENNA

The Aachen Peace Prize 2020 is being awarded to Père Antoine Exelmans, a priest who has dedicated his life to helping migrants and refugees in Morocco. The German award is given each year to women, men or groups who fight against injustice and for peace.

The French priest is being recognized for his humanitarian efforts at his parish in Oujda, Morocco — near the Algerian border — where he has been assisting migrants and refugees for the past several years, offering them food, medical aid and a roof over their heads. 

In his care, many asylum seekers from across the African continent find shelter from human traffickers who are known for violent practices ranging from abuse to extortion. When his community center is full, Père Antoine resorts to housing the migrants in the pews of his church instead.

"Many of the people who come to us are vulnerable and are marked by the experiences they had to undergo on their journeys," Exelmans told InfoMigrants in an interview. "These migrants arrive in an irregular manner and often remain in a precarious situation for weeks, months, or years. They have this dream of (reaching) Europe that forces them through many dangers on the way."

"It’s still a big challenge to help restore the dignity of these persons by giving them a fraternal and humanitarian welcome and assisting these most vulnerable people in society," the priest added.

Le Père Antoine Exelmans / Photo : Kirchenkreis Jülich
Le Père Antoine Exelmans / Photo : Kirchenkreis Jülich

Alternatives to migration

In addition to bringing them to safety, Père Antoine Exelmans also tries to highlight alternatives for the migrants and refugees who appear at his door. He works closely the UN refugee agency UNHCR to help prepare them for the asylum process, and tries to get young, unaccompanied migrants in particular to continue their education while they’re in Morocco. 

But he's also an educator when it comes to the dangers of migration. The migrants that end up in his care had usually intended to travel further through Algeria and on to Libya, which is the main port of departure for many refugees and migrants on the African continent. He tries to explain to the migrants he looks after that continuing their journey might spell their peril:

"We’re not in the business of making politics," Exelmans stresses. "We simply highlight that the border to Algeria is closed, which means that people will try to cross this border with the help of traffickers; they will try to take irregular migratory routes, to climb barbed wire, cross ditches and sometimes even walk across the mountains with guides who might abandon them in the middle of the night."

The Aachen Peace Prize committee, which includes representatives of civil society as well as church bodies, said it wanted to stress the "selfless" nature and dedication of Père Antoine’s work in Morocco. It also said it wanted to remind people of the importance of addressing the migration situation across the globe. Exelmans himself told InfoMigrants that many people abroad do not know much about the high number of migrants stuck in Morocco and the many danger they face.

Also read: 'I saw three people die' in the desert after Algerian police made migrants walk to Niger

Oujda — at the heart of the African migration dilemma 

Oujda is located only about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southeast from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which is also a popular port of irregular migration in Africa, as Melilla is considered EU territory. 

Being also located merely 60 kilometers (40 miles) away from the Mediterranean, some migrants and refugees in Oujda are also tempted to cross the Mediterranean in boats to reach European shores from there directly.

Most, however, tend to travel further east to Algeria, Tunisia and finally to Libya to embark on those dangerous sea journeys; however, the number of migrants trying to reach Spanish soil from Morocco has also been on the rise.

The Aachen Peace Prize committee said that the migration dilemma would not change without the eradication of the root causes of migration, stressing the role of war, conflict and poverty. 

Antoine Exelmans said he felt similarly. He told InfoMigrants that he felt it was his duty to go to Morocco to "go to the source" of what he regards as "two great emergency projects": inter-religious dialogue with Muslims and welcoming migrants.

Also read: Red Cross sets up free call centers along popular migrant routes in West Africa

An award in recognition of quiet peacemakers

The Aachen Peace Prize (based in the German city of Aachen) has been given each year since 1988 to two “women, men or groups … who fight against injustice and for peace, showing courage entering great risks.” The initiative highlights grassroots organizations with little recognition in the public eye in particular.

In addition to Père Antoine Exelmans, the other award-winner of 2020 is the “Centro Gaspar Garcia de Direitos Humanos” in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which fights against social injustice, homelessness and poverty in the slums of Brazil’s largest city.

Also read: Alarm Phone Sahara saving lives in the desert

Award ceremony under the long shadow of COVID

The award-giving ceremony traditionally takes place at the beginning of September, but has had to be postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. It is scheduled to take place on December 10 — the UN Human Rights Day. It is expected, however, that this year the two winners will only be able to participate in the event via video-link.

The prize, which is endowed with 2,000 euros for each winner, will be presented by German veteran left-wing politician Gregor Gysi.

Note: InfoMigrants spoke to Père Antoine Exelmans in French


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