Where have you come from and what are you doing, Father Franco Mella? This is a fair question to ask the Italian priest who has, for the past 26 years, seemingly popped up in Hong Kong every time there is a dispute between the Government and the people. It is also something that many people must have wondered having seen him prominently featured this week on television and in newspapers as he campaigns alongside the children of mainland parents, refusing to go home until their right of abode is granted. In fact, since last Saturday when the dispute started, he has hardly left his campsite at the Central Government Offices, except to join protesters on a march to the Immigration Department or to lead them into government offices to hand over petitions to legislators. Dressed in some worse-for-wear corduroy trousers and a blue shirt, shoes that are obviously broken and a headband, he looks so out of place - the only silver-haired head in a sea of dark hair. During the day Father Mella hangs out with the crowd, talking, giving instructions and advice in fluent Cantonese and Putonghua. He bustles around rather like an army general or some incongruous-looking figure of authority dispensing advice on how to beat the system. He meets members of the international press and gives statements on behalf of the people, taking the media into the heart of the action. At night he throws his blankets alongside the protesters and sleeps with them. The only luxury he allows himself, every day or two, is a quick shower at the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions house in the evenings. Anyone who has been in Hong Kong for any time will remember him because he has been present during many of our political, human rights or social crises. I do not think it is unkind to say he cannot resist a fight. In fact I cannot help but think that if he were not an ordained Catholic priest with a mission from God, he could be a freedom fighter waging a different war. In his role as Father Mella, he cannot be classified as anything more harmful than a 'pain in the neck' for the Government. This is because he knows the ropes backwards, he knows how the Government works and he understands the channels of bureaucracy. Father Franco, as he is called by the people, knows how to chart these waters, what buttons to push. His mission is to impart this knowledge to the underdog who is not sure how to go about orchestrating a public campaign. Take this latest issue. Father Mella no longer lives in Hong Kong and has been working as an English teacher and missionary in Jiangmen city on the mainland since 1991. He was just here on holiday, he says, when he happened to get wind of the dispute on a radio bulletin. 'I was actually going to see an old friend of mine on Saturday morning - a street sleeper who is now in jail - when I saw the protesters outside Government House. They were shouting into a loudspeaker and I could just see that they had no idea how to go about being heard so I stepped in to give support and to help them.' He has done a fine job of this, too: with his help and encouragement, the protesters are sitting tight and intend to do so until the right of abode issue is clarified for each of them. During the week, 'over-stayers' whose permits have expired have been carted off to jail, but not without Father Mella in tow, championing them. Thanks in part to the priest, the protesters' case has received wide publicity. Government officials are all too aware they have a problem literally on their doorstep. What is he doing and why? 'I believe that all people have a right to basic human rights and I try to help them achieve this,' Father Mella says. 'There are people who have been waiting to be accepted as Hong Kong residents for up to 10 years. I believe in the unity of families as a biblical concept and this situation is not right. People are separated from their families when families should be united,' he says. Clearly Father Mella sees what he calls the 'laws of the Gospel' as laws above those of the land. 'I am blessed by the Lord to be able to help give a voice to the poor, to the weak and to those who are fighting for basic human rights. In the kingdom of God all people are equal, men, women, rich, poor, and this is how it should be on Earth.' Fighting for the oppressed has been his raison d'etre since he was a child, he says. He was born in Milan and went to seminary aged 14. When he became an ordained priest in 1974 he came to Hong Kong with the order of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. He first lived in the mission's house in Clearwater Bay for a year while he learned to speak Cantonese and write Chinese. 'It was a beautiful place, but it made me feel uncomfortable because I felt I should be closer to the people,' he said. As soon as he could he moved to a squatter area in Diamond Hill, and that was where his first big fight started. He became involved in a struggle to save the squatters' land from being cleared. He gave his first press conference in 1976 and was also jailed for a few days for his efforts. In the 1970s Father Mella went to work in a factory so he could learn first-hand about the issues facing the working class. He earned $150 a day in a garment factory. During the many years he worked in Hong Kong he also held Mass on Sundays and helped the community, he says. He is probably most famous for his involvement with the boat families in the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter in the 1980s. He helped them publicise their plight (wives visiting their husbands here were not allowed to set a foot off the boat because they did not have permits). Again he was arrested. After a 3.5-day hunger strike in February 1986, some of the wives were allowed to stay and more than 1,000 'boat brides' were allowed back two years later. Father Mella is also remembered for his annual hunger strike for the release of jailed Hong Kong resident Lau Shan-ching, accused of counter-revolutionary activities in China. Every year at Christmas he could be found on a bench at Government Offices fasting the same number of days as the years that Mr Lau had been in jail. Mr Lau was eventually released after nearly a decade. There is no doubt that when Father Mella makes it his mission to take on a group of people he deems to be in need of his help, he is there to stay. He will not be returning to his home in China until this particular issue is resolved - if the mainland government will allow him back in. He has his doubts after this latest escapade.