In 2018, journalist Sally Hayden received a message on Facebook from a refugee in a Libyan detention centre. “We need your help. We are under bad condition in Libya prison. If you have time, I will tell you all the story,” the message read, seemingly sent out of the blue.
It turned out that the man knew Hayden’s name because of an investigation she had conducted for The New Humanitarian earlier that year about allegations of corruption within the UN refugee agency’s resettlement programme in Sudan.
The contact lit a fuse for Hayden. She began what would become four years of in-depth reporting into the abuses being perpetrated against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Libyan detention centres, exploring in particular how EU policies were helping to perpetuate this cycle of suffering. Hayden compiled the reporting into a book, “My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking refuge on the world’s deadliest migration route”, published in March.
A year before the man reached out to Hayden from the detention centre, the EU and its member states had begun providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants attempting to leave the country and reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Since then, the EU’s policies, as well as the abuses they help facilitate, have been well documented by Hayden and others, including in our interactive explainer. But holding anyone accountable for the abuses, or pressuring the EU to change course, have proved elusive.
“In the detention centres where people who are intercepted end up, there is not a proper registration system,” Hayden said. “We don’t know how many people are dying when they are returned to Libya. You cannot do a proper analysis of the consequences of European policies that support these interceptions and returns without that information, but it just isn’t being gathered.”
The New Humanitarian recently spoke to Hayden about the questionable roles the EU, UN agencies, and sometimes other aid organisations are playing in Libya, as well as the need for accountability and the importance of continuing to document the abuses being perpetrated.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: What is still poorly understood about the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Libya?
Sally Hayden: What I was interested in when I started reporting on this was the effects of European policies – basically what the EU is deliberately doing to harden its own borders. In 2012, there was a European Court of Human Rights decision – the Hirsi decision – which said that European navy and coast guard boats cannot return refugees and migrants to Libya. The current policy of supporting the Libyan Coast Guard has evolved as a result of that decision. When I interviewed the EU’s border agency Frontex – which provides operational support to the Libyan Coast Guard – they told me that they do not monitor what happens after people are intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard because Libya is a sovereign state.
We also know that in the detention centres where people who are intercepted end up there is not a proper registration system. There’s no list of who is inside. It’s a sign of the dysfunctionality of the Libyan state, but it is also deliberate. In detention centres, people get sold to traffickers, they pay their way out, they get sent out during the day as forced labour. Having a registration system would get in the way of being able to do that. People can go missing or even die without their names being noted down. We don’t know how many people are dying when they are returned to Libya. You cannot do a proper analysis of the consequences of European policies that support these interceptions and returns without that information, but it just isn’t being gathered.
In terms of EU funding, my reporting has showed that a lot of money from the EU Trust Fund for Africa – a multi-billion dollar pot of money established in 2015 and aimed, effectively, at stopping migration from across Africa – ends up supporting or empowering militias in various ways, which contributes to the dysfunctionality in Libya. In my book, I write about being on a rescue ship off the Libyan coast, and I assumed that if we rescued people they would be refugees from various African countries who escaped detention centres. But instead we rescued Libyans who said they were fleeing militias because the militias are just making the country unlivable. The problems are massive, but I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about how specifically European Union anti-migration funding is making them worse.
The New Humanitarian: What role are UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations playing when it comes to European migration control policies in Libya?
Hayden: Money from the EU Trust Fund directed toward Libya doesn’t just go towards training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard. It also goes towards UN agencies – IOM (the UN’s migration agency) and UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) – that then distribute it through partner organisations that implement projects that are supposed to improve humanitarian conditions inside detention centres.
When you interview European politicians and say, “Is your policy not effectively returning people to indefinite detention in Libya where they have no legal recourse, no way to get out?”. The European politicians will respond that they don’t approve of the detention centres; that they want them closed; but that, in the meantime, they are trying to improve the situation by funding the UN.
Pretty quickly after I started reporting on this, I started getting contacted by UN staff – as well as staff from the UN’s partner organisations in Libya – who were basically saying that they were very uncomfortable with the way the UN was being used because they felt like it was being used to whitewash the brutal effects of European Union policy. And that was because the European politicians could use the funding being sent to UN agencies as an excuse.
Now it has been five years since this policy began, and the conditions in detention centres haven’t improved. I think that it’s clear that they are not necessarily going to get better and that the centres are not going to be closed any time soon.
The New Humanitarian: You frame your book saying that you hope it contributes to the quest for accountability. Who needs to be held accountable and for what?
Hayden: I’m a journalist, so I’m just trying to document things. But, for me, it has been quite shocking that there hasn’t been some sort of analysis in terms of both the consequences of the European Union policy and then certain incidents that have happened inside detention centres. For example, one that I write about is the detention centre in Zintan. At one point, one person was dying every two weeks of medical neglect and starvation. And there was never any sort of accountability for those deaths. Things just moved on.
A lot of the people who are working with aid organisations on these issues in aid organisations – the top people anyway – are based in Tunisia. They’re not even necessarily based in Libya. A lot of them also only stay for one year, or something like that. There’s a lot of turnover. So I don’t know that lessons are always being learned over a longer term from mistakes that have been made in the past.
In terms of accountability, I know that there are a lot of lawyers attempting to hold specific Libyan individuals accountable who may be guilty of various crimes against humanity and war crimes. There is also a broader attempt to see if there’s any way for the EU to be held accountable. I’ve heard a lot of questions as well about whether the humanitarian organisations should have done more in terms of at least trying to learn lessons from things that have gone wrong.
The New Humanitarian: This story really broke through globally in 2017 with the CNN report about Libyan slave markets, which is incidentally the same year the EU started supporting the Libyan Coast Guard. What has changed since then?
Hayden: We’ve moved from the monetisation of movement to the monetisation of captivity, as Mark Micallef, director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime’s North Africa and Sahel Observatory, has said. When people are with smugglers, they are being sold between different smuggling gangs, and the amount that they have to pay to get out of detention or get on a boat to cross the sea is rising and rising, and they might have to pay repeatedly. They might have to pay $5,000 and then they might have to pay it again and again.
When people get into detention, that has also been monetised because they are either being sent out as forced labour, which the people in charge of the detention centre are able to profit from, or they are being used inside detention centres as forced labour, or they are having to get released. There are also allegations that the people running the detention centres are skimming off the aid that is delivered or finding other ways to make a profit from it.
Overall, I don’t think the situation has changed dramatically. But what we have now is a long period of time to show that this is what is happening. We can’t pretend like this situation is going to get better now. It has been going on long enough. We know that it’s not getting better.
The New Humanitarian: How do we move from that clear picture of what is happening to some sort of change taking place?
Hayden: We are seeing very slow developments or admissions about what is happening. For example, the independent UN fact-finding mission last October said that there was evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes being carried out against refugees and migrants in Libya. More recently, we had the ICC (International Criminal Court) prosecutor say the same. All of these things, potentially they’ll make some difference. It’s a very slow process, but I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t be gathering the evidence.
Obviously, the situation now is atrocious and there are gross human rights abuses. Our role as journalists is to make sure people can’t say they didn’t know about it.