Book note: Sally Hayden, My Fourth Time We Drowned

by Chris Bertram on August 13, 2022

A few years ago at Crooked Timber, I posted a review of Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast, about the migration route to the United States from Central America through Mexico. It was a horrifying catalogue of coercion, physical injuries, murders and rapes and one friend who read it on my recommendation told me he regretted having done so, because it was so disturbing. If anything a more horrible story is told in My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, by the Irish journalist Sally Hayden. It is a book that exposes the deadly migration route across the Sahara to Libya, the Libyan detention camps run by militias, and then the attempts to cross the Mediterranean that are often foiled by the EU-funded Libyan “coastguard”, that often lead to mass drownings and only sometimes to an arrival in Italy or Malta.

There are many nationalities trying to cross to Europe, but many of them, and a particular focus of Hayden’s narrative, are Eritreans. Eritrea is the most repressive state in Africa and by some measures more repressive than North Korea. The Eritreans who are trying to flee this police state are trying to escape a life of indefinite conscription, often punctuated by violence and by sexual abuse. European states, in an echo of their actions in trying to prevent Jews from fleeing Germany in the 1930s, act so as to make it as difficult for people to escape as possible. In doing so, they empower and enrich both the people smugglers who treat these escapees as exploitable assets and the various militias who run detention camps within Libya.

As they make their way across the desert, where many are abandoned and die, migrants fall into the hands of smugglers to whom they may already have paid a fee. They are held and their relatives receive pictures of them demanding more money for their onward transit, pictures of sons and daughter being tortured that resemble for all the world those pictures of Abu Ghraib. The smugglers who hold them in these coralls, not only torture for money and recreation, they also rape large numbers of the women held there.
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