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.

The hope of these refugees is to make it to Libya, where they can get on a boat to Europe. But Europe doesn’t want them, so it supports an archipelago of detention in a failed state, run by militias at war with one another. Overcrowding, violence, disease are the order of the day, as well as occasional forced conscription to support the military operations of the militias. While international organizations and NGOs, as well as the EU, issue bland statements about respect for human rights, Hayden paints an unflattering picture of their operations which rarely involve proper inspections of facilities and where detainees who try to speak are beaten. Meanwhile the UNHCR and its staff spend most of their time in Tunis, enjoying a nice expat lifestyle in a peaceful city. The only NGO which emerges with any credit from this story is Médecins Sans Frontières which does make genuine attempts to support the detained and to alert the world to these abuses.

The story of the Libyan “coastguard” is particularly repulsive. The EU, having withdrawn from search-and-rescue itself, with Frontex focused on restriction and exclusion, has outsourced the task of stopping the boats to a “coastguard” that is staffed by the very same militias who detain migrants, and which is less a body engaged in rescue than a bounty-hunting operation, recapturing migrants and selling them back to smugglers and militias so that more money can be extorted from the survivors.

There’s much propaganda in wealthy countries about the smugglers and their evil trade, but it is clear from Hayden’s narrative that those most at risk of punishment are low-level operatives, migrants themselves who steer boats and rescuers. In an episode towards the end of the book, two of the leading smugglers, one with a particular penchant for rape, are detained in Addis Ababa and there’s a trial. Witnesses face intimidation and procedural constraints mean that most of the victims are unavailable to give testimony. One of the accused manages to escape with ease, the other — the mass rapist — gets a fairly light sentence.

As well as the content of the book, the circumstances of its composition stand out. Much of it is based on the testimony of the detained, sent via Facebook messages and similar to Hayden and documenting in real time events in the camps. These are being sent to a freelance journalist who is herself living in a sublet room in a house in London, who is a person of manifest resourcefulness but lacking in material resources. In a world of smartphones and the internet, it is both easier for smugglers to advertise and to extort relative and harder to hide the truth of what is happening in and around Libya. Unfortunately, though the truth cannot be hidden, European states, NGOs and well-resourced media empires don’t much want to tell us about it, but act at the behest of electorates who don’t want to hear. Still, we do know, and history will judge us as defective and complicit as our predecessors in the 1930.

It is easy to be crushed by a confrontation with this violence, committed on our behalf by agents whose connection to us can so easily be disavowed. Locking people in to dictatorships and subjecting those who escape to such trauma and often to death is something for which we are collectively responsible. And we have a collective responsibity to end it.