Lord Sandwich reviews 'My Fourth Time, We Drowned'
September 2022, Libyan international waters: a migrant hands a baby to a lifeguard from the Spanish NGO Open Arms | Image by: Associated Press / Alamy
A horrifying yet readable book, Sally Hayden’s award-winning reporting reveals the humanity behind headlines of the migrant crisis
Published in paperback this year, this book by Irish journalist Sally Hayden has won a lot of awards for exposing the treatment of migrants, mainly in camps in Libya, ready to risk the crossing to Europe in small boats. Libya and Tunisia are the major crossing points to Italy and beyond.
In some ways it is a horrifying book, describing innocent men and women – even children – from many different circumstances suffering physical assault, torture and deprivation of food and medical treatment in camps like Abu Salim and Ain Zara. These are migrants and refugees seeking refuge from conflict, climate change or persecution in Africa, only to find conditions get much worse along the way.
The author’s concern is that, while the European Union and the United Nations agencies – with our financial support – are supposed to visit these “detention centres” regularly, most of them are more like prisons, run by local militia, gangsters and traffickers. One remote centre called Zintan was nicknamed Guantanamo.
This research is unique because we rarely read about migrants as real people
This research is unique because we rarely read about migrants as real people. They are often presented as down-and-outs, coming towards us as a kind of threat to our European way of life. Many of them become de facto refugees because they have legitimate reasons for fearing persecution, having been so badly treated on their journey. Some travel hundreds of miles from countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea to reach traffickers in Libya who then extort large sums of money from their parents.
The author has carefully gathered information from several visits to the region. What makes her book so readable is her skill in making friends with the detainees and retaining that friendship, in some cases to the end of their migration. At the same time she takes great care not to contact people too obviously, by mobile or messages, in case they are spotted and maltreated.
The two UN agencies most involved, UNHCR and IOM, have escaped international criticism. Challenged by the author they released statements protesting that they were doing their best to deliver aid although they could rarely rely on co-operation from the camp commanders. But without any overall government authority in Libya, any norms of humanitarian aid in a lawless society have naturally proved impossible.
More recently North Africa has come back into the news because of the presence of the maverick Wagner Group in Mali, Sudan and elsewhere. The civil war in Sudan may turn that country into another Libya, with local militants taking back power from central government. French and international withdrawal from Mali provides militant groups with another opportunity to fill the vacuum.
The result is, of course, more migration. Europe will either have to accept this fact or devise some further deterrents. Much more aid to the countries of origin should always be considered.
But reliance on the Libyan coastguard or “detention centres” to stop the flow can hardly be adequate.
Lord Sandwich is a Crossbench peer
My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route
By: Sally Hayden
Publisher: Fourth Estate
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