The Russian invasion of Ukraine has displaced around 6 million people, yet one silver lining is that refugee-hosting European Union countries have been, by many accounts, “extraordinarily welcoming” to these refugees. Instead of being indefinitely detained in inhumane detention centers, many of these Ukrainian refugees, who are mostly white Christians, have been able to stay with host families in Europe or hotels and dormitories free of charge. Even nationalist governments like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime have been willing to take in Ukrainian refugees—despite the prime minister saying as recently as December 2021 that “we will not do anything to change the way the border is protected. We won’t change it, and we aren’t going to let anyone in.”
Orban, who has become a hero to the American right and embodies a certain illiberal style of “strongman” leadership, has previously peddled the claim that mass migration poses an existential threat to his country and has caged and starved refugees. Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski was also quick to show his solidarity with Ukrainian refuges, announcing in February that “anyone fleeing from bombs, from Russian rifles, can count on the support of the Polish state,” despite his government having spent hundreds of millions of euros on building a 115-mile border wall to deter Middle Eastern asylum-seekers from entering the country from Belarus a few months earlier.
The contrast between the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and those from African and Middle Eastern countries is stark—one group has been warmly embraced while another has been rebuffed—sometimes at the same time and fleeing across the same border.
The often-baroque intricacies of the international migration system and the plight of the African refugees and asylum-seekers it chews up and spits out is taken up in a new book by journalist and FP contributor Sally Hayden. My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route is a deeply researched and harrowing chronicle of the experiences of many refugees fleeing dictatorships, violence, persecution, and war. The book is the culmination of a one-woman fact-finding mission to uncover the myriad abuses faced by migrants hoping to make a better life for themselves in Europe. Hayden’s reporting instincts come through on every page—as does her moral indignation.
Much of her fury is appropriately directed at European Union migration policies that have led to violence, extortion, and crimes against humanity. In 2015, for example, the EU launched the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, aimed at stopping migration to Europe; since then, 455 million euros ($487 million at current exchange rates) have been earmarked for Libya, ostensibly for migration and border management, but large portions were funneled instead to traffickers and militiamen.
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Hayden recounts being sandbagged by U.N. officials, who refused to speak with her for investigative pieces after her critical coverage of them or being stonewalled by media outlets as a freelancer. “How was this story so unknown internationally?” she wonders. And “how would anything improve if the public was never shown the shameful and horrifying reality of what was happening?”
In addition to her published work, she took to social media to post her findings. Even then, however, the ease with which she sent dispatches to the rest of the world was counterbalanced by a knocking dread over the role social media platforms have played in directing the fates and fortunes of African migrants. “Technology became both a blessing and a curse,” she writes. “It could be a lifeline used for asking for help or a humiliation—the way oblivious friends and relatives could chance upon their abuse, suffering, and anguish in real time.” It has a further warping effect, inflating ransom prices for captured migrants.
Hayden’s narrative covers the period between 2017 and 2021. During this period, according to the book, more than 7,000 men, women, and children (a conservative estimate) drowned in the Central Mediterranean Sea; 80,000 people were intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and forced to return to Libya, an oil-rich country that has become a key transit hub for migrants from Africa and the Middle East. This tactic, Hayden notes, “allowed the EU to circumnavigate international law,” specifically the principle of nonrefoulement, under which a person cannot be sent back to a country where their life is endangered. (Libya did not sign on to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which gives refugees international rights.)
The book properly begins in 2018, with a Facebook message that Hayden receives one summer day from an Eritrean refugee in Ain Zara, a prison-like migrant detention center in Libya. He sends her photos of his emaciated body, pleads with her to contact U.N. agencies on his behalf, and updates her on the war going on just outside the center’s gates. “He had breached two borders, survived kidnapping by traffickers, and traveled nearly 3,000 kilometers to get to Libya,” Hayden writes.
After he had failed to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, he was imprisoned in the detention center, where he would spend months in migration purgatory alongside hundreds of others. The entire group had recourse to only one shared cell phone, which they used to make emergency calls to relatives and reporters like Hayden.
The Eritrean told Hayden he and other detainees are put to work as “slaves in the homes of wealthy Libyans” and that Libyan guards order them to stand outside in early, cold hours for roll call—a ritual not unlike Appellplatz, Hayden notes, which Nazis carried out to humiliate prisoners in concentration camps. She is soon inundated with Twitter and WhatsApp messages from other detained refugees.
Of the 20 official migrant detention centers in Libya at that time, Hayden eventually finds a way to contact people in half—many of whom would qualify as what scholar Jacqueline Bhabha has called “distress migrants” or people for whom “mobility presents the only viable exit” from conditions of chronic destitution, ecological degradation, or conflict. An activity that was once limited to men looking for seasonal agricultural work is now undertaken by hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere.
The category of “distress migrants” is one that Hayden does not explicitly invoke, but it is in keeping with the spirit of her book, which seeks to enlarge existing categories for legal migration and erode false dichotomies, such as the one between “refugees” and “economic migrants” that underpins modern migration law. (Refugees, per the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, have a “well-founded fear of persecution” and thus a bona fide claim to international protection while the latter are often treated as scofflaws spontaneously driven by pecuniary motives.) Many of the individuals Hayden interviews are driven to flee their homes out of fear for their safety and economic desperation.
They’re also often ensnared in a Catch-22: “Most had a clear entitlement to international protection, though the irony of asylum law is that they must first illegally reach a safe place to be granted their right to live in it,” Hayden writes. She hears from Eritreans seeking to evade forced conscription, Somalis running from war or the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab, Ethiopians who are repressed due to their ethnicity, Tigrayans “exhausted by ceaseless poverty,” and more. All these people could have benefited from humanitarian aid before they made their hazardous journeys; instead, they face detention and punishment.
“Their stories were eerily similar,” she notes, and they follow a similar pattern: East Africans first pay smugglers thousands of dollars to convey them to Sudan—where they might be sexually assaulted and extorted for even more money by corrupt police—whence they embark on what one of Hayden’s refugee sources calls the “road of death.” (Hayden cites an EUobserver investigation that found that the European Union has given more than 200 million euros to Sudan in the mid-2010s to curb migration. And as reported by Der Spiegel, the Janjaweed, a paramilitary group accused of war crimes in Darfur, has been one beneficiary of the EU’s largess.)
If they don’t survive the 800-mile trek through the Sahara Desert, they are shepherded into a holding pattern in the form of cacophonous warehouse prisons in Bani Walid, a lawless Libyan town that migrants call the “ghost city” because of the number of people who mysteriously vanish. In one such compound, a source relates to Hayden, there are only four toilets, “with negligible plumbing.” Showers are only permitted every two weeks, and refugees are reduced to drinking water from toilets.
From there, those who survive board overcrowded, unseaworthy rubber vessels that—if they don’t capsize—eventually get intercepted by armed Libyan militiamen, who funnel them on to detention centers. These centers, where refugees end up marking time, are nominally run by Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which has ties to the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, but “in reality,” Hayden writes, “the Tripoli government was weak, propped up by a collection of militias that operated with impunity.”
Once they enter the jaws of a detention center, distress refugees often start to feel “paralyzed, disconnected, useless.” Several migrant detention centers are “doubled as military bases,” Hayden observes, with refugees “being used as human shields.” She describes an especially nightmarish detention camp in eastern Tripoli, which one U.N. source likened to Guantánamo Bay.
The Tajoura detention center was housed in a military complex with a subterranean network of cells that once served as torture chambers. It also happened to be the headquarters of the Daman militia. One Sudanese detainee, who was punished after attempting to escape, wrote: “They broke my hand and the legs of my three friends, also they put us in a private room far away from the others. Every day they punish us: no water, no eating, we are about to die.”
When fighting broke out in Tripoli, fighters forced some of the stronger-looking refugees to become combatants or else to man weapons stores, clean tanks, load bombs onto vehicles, and cook for the military. When the first airstrike hit a nearby weapons depot in July 2019, it caused utter chaos: One refugee sent Hayden a video of detainees darting around for cover or trying to break through windows to escape. “You see the dust and hear hollering, almost celebratory, like a lot of weak people have suddenly remembered that they are alive, adrenaline coursing, blood pumping,” Hayden writes. There’s also the awful smell of burnt flesh. The U.N. later estimated that the death toll was 53, though unofficial accounts are four times higher.
What makes the ordeals of African refugees even more disturbing is the way they are juxtaposed with Hayden’s account of her own trips to several African countries, including Eritrea and Sudan. For example, in a section that begins with the story of an Eritrean refugee named Kaleb, who sets out on a migration route taken earlier by his father, Hayden includes excerpts from her own travels in the region, undertaken in 2015 while working as a Vice staff writer. She recalls being taken on a hike “by a kind Ethiopian guide and a local guard.” Summiting a mountaintop, she reflects that “it felt like a place far from politics, though I later found out the Ethiopian government was forcibly relocating people from their villages as part of efforts to improve conservation and increase tourism.”
In Sudan, Hayden experiences a different atmosphere: “I found a heavily controlled state with a prevalent air of tension where civilians suffered the crushing effects of US sanctions, imposed two decades before due to accusations that Sudan’s regime was sponsoring terrorism.” Still, she is able to obtain a travel permit and a stamped letter of approval from Sudan’s Commission of Refugees, and “a short flight” or a “long drive in jeeps” can easily transport her to market towns or refugee camps. (Hayden also registers her discomfort at receiving awards for her reporting while the material conditions of refugees have not improved.)
Hayden strikes the right balance: Rather than threatening to overtake the stories of refugees, her personal accounts lend them a surreal hue, emphasizing the arbitrary nature of those who can travel freely, with the aid of passports, and those who are left to the caprices of smugglers and traffickers. Corrupt governments and ineffectual, increasingly corporatized U.N. agencies, which have done much to manufacture the humanitarian crisis in Libya, also attract much of Hayden’s ire.
As one source tells her, “the amount of time and money that [the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] spend[s] on visibility and public relations is more than they are spending on the actual work.” The asymmetry of power between those living relatively free lives and refugees at the mercy of deadly seas or arbitrary detention highlights “the gap separating those who pay attention and those who do not have to.” Even when Westerners do pay attention, there’s a risk it will be ephemeral. Hayden anticipates this; in an afterword, she discusses the psychic toll her reporting has taken on her and the need to avoid becoming complacent.
The situation in Libya, which lacks a stable government and is cleaved into rival factions backed by armed groups, has grown even more dire since Hayden’s book was published. As revealed in a confidential EU military report leaked to the Associated Press this year, Europe plans to continue a program that allows the North African country to “manage a massive search-and-rescue area of the Mediterranean” in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of migrants have suffered torture, sexual abuse, and extortion from detention center guards.
The same report that calls for a continuation of the EU program to train Libya’s Coast Guard personnel—many of whom are former smugglers—also incongruously notes that the Libyan patrol has used “excessive … physical force” when intercepting migrants in the past. Libya also recently appointed a trafficking wolf to guard the migrant henhouse, installing Mohammed al-Khoja—a known militia leader who formerly ran the Tarik al-Sikka detention center in Tripoli—to lead the Department for Combating Illegal Migration. The appointment is in keeping with EU-sanctioned crackdowns on migration in a country ravaged by years of civil war.
The accelerating climate crisis poses another threat to refugees in coming years. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that the effects of global warming, at 2 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, are “much more widespread and much more negative than expected.” Intensifying heat waves, rainfall, and storm surges—largely a result of the burning of fossil fuels—will displace more than 1 billion people by 2050, hitting poor and disenfranchised populations the hardest.
Hayden’s noteworthy book should be a wake-up call for international aid organizations and world leaders. Remarking on the IPCC report, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said “delay is death.” The same is true for the millions of people from African countries who are now seeking refuge on a rapidly warming planet.
The world needs a new and more equitable international migration system that acknowledges the reality of hundreds of thousands of distressed individuals fleeing conflicts or climate catastrophes in their homelands as well as invests in generous resettlement programs for the most vulnerable, including children. Without such changes, tomorrow’s migration crises will be even more traumatic and destabilizing than today’s.