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Libya is a ‘market of human beings’

Many African migrants and refugees see crossing the Mediterranean Sea as the only chance for a better life. Sally Hayden tells their harrowing stories in My Fourth Time, We Drowned.



As the war in Ukraine rages on, the European Union and the rest of the world is witnessing the biggest influx of refugees into Europe since World War II.

The majority of the more than 5.2 million people who have fled Ukraine are women and children, as Russia continues to target residential areas indiscriminately, including hospitals and apartment buildings. The United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees estimates that a further 7.1 million people are internally displaced in Ukraine.

Poland has taken in more than 2.9 million people fleeing the conflict, while other countries such as Romania, Moldova and Hungary have also taken in a significant number of refugees. Ukraine’s neighbours have been mostly welcoming of those fleeing the conflict, but there have been reports of migrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia being pushed to the back of queues for departing buses and trains.

20 November 2014: The Libyan coastguard rescues sub-Saharan African migrants after their boat sank off the coastal town of Guarabouli, 60km east of capital city Tripoli. (Photograph by Hazem Turkia/ Getty Images)

That racism and xenophobia have played a role in how people are treated, and used to determine who gets preference to leave, is undeniable. They have been a prominent feature in Europe’s response to the refugee and migrant crises that have played out on that continent and in the Mediterranean in the past decade.

Eastern Europe’s efforts to prevent refugees from the Middle East reaching Western Europe are well documented, with border guards forcing people back, shooting at them and holding them in detention facilities for extended periods of time. Europe has also struck deals with countries such as Turkey and Libya to prevent migrants and refugees from reaching the continent.


Detention centres

It is because of this context that Sally Hayden’s book My Fourth Time, We Drowned is so relevant. Hayden, an award-winning Irish journalist whose work focuses on migration, conflict and humanitarian crises, paints a disturbing picture of the consequences of the EU’s attempts to prevent migration to Europe. These include the creation of the European Union Emergency Trust Fund to address the “root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa”.

Further attempts to prevent people from crossing into Europe include a €100 million deal between Italy and Libya, whereby the Libyan coastguard will be trained and equipped to “stem the influx of illegal migrants”.

This has seen migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean being intercepted and escorted back to Libya, where many are detained indefinitely in inhumane conditions in detention centres across the North African country.


This is where Hayden’s reporting starts, after she received a message on Facebook in 2018 from an Eritrean man detained in one of these centres. At the time, renewed fighting had broken out in Libya, with conflict raging on the streets. Many migrants and refugees were left behind in detention centres as the guards fled.

The story starts with one of the central figures in Hayden’s book, young Eritrean refugee Kaleb. The book follows his many attempts to cross the Mediterranean, which end with him in detention centres in Libya and abused by human traffickers.

His story of trying to find a better life in Europe is told in meticulous detail, starting on a cramped boat as Kaleb and other migrants and refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean. “The sea was dark, the water cold. Some of the hundred people in the boat were crying softly, stomachs heaving as they retched from seasickness. Women would occasionally shout out, clutching their children as they beseechingly praised the Lord,” Hayden writes.


Journey of horror

The Libyan coastguard would later intercept the boat, starting the young man’s journey of horror. “Kaleb’s interception at sea marked the crushing culmination of all the time and more than $10 000 he had paid out while attempting to reach safety. His hopes were obliterated by hardening European migration policy at its most brutal,” writes Hayden.

Her reporting painstakingly documents the years of desperation and hopelessness that the migrants and refugees kept in these detention centres faced, where they were starved and abused by guards. But the book also contains first-hand accounts of the human trafficking and the modern-day slave markets that thrive in the country.


In Souq al Khamis, a migrant detention centre in the Libyan port city of Khoms, migrants warn new arrivals what to expect by writing on the walls. “Who comes to this house, may God help you,” says one message. “Libya is a market of human beings.”

Some migrants and refugees were sold to traffickers directly from this detention centre. The traffickers then demanded ransoms as high as $20 000 from their families. Where families were unable to pay the ransom money, many were beaten and killed. With detailed accounts from many of those kept at Souq al Khamis, and other centres like it, Hayden shows the toll these conditions had on migrants and refugees who had already risked their lives, over and over in many cases, to leave their homes.

No help from aid workers

Around 20 people detained in Khoms tried to kill themselves in December 2018, with one man reportedly telling Hayden: “The world can’t find us, we’re especially isolated. Some are getting mental desperation. We are living in a dark hell.”

While her reporting sheds light on the horrific conditions migrants and refugees face on their perilous journey just to reach Libya, Hayden’s work also casts a light on the corruption and ineptitude of careerist non-governmental organisation and aid agency workers. Some of the stories in Hayden’s book paint a worrying picture about those who are meant to be helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in conflict and disaster areas.


It shows a contingent of workers focused instead on self-enrichment and advancing their careers. In one particularly shocking account, Alessandra Morelli, the UN High Commission for Refugees representative in Niger, likened refugees complaining about their treatment and the aid agency’s failure to help them to children throwing a tantrum.

9 Aug 2019: Author Sally Hayden. (Source: Facebook)

My Fourth Time, We Drowned not only details the effects of the ongoing and sustained systematic failures by those in the EU to deal with migration and the global humanitarian crises forcing people to flee. It also acts as a mirror to the rest of the world, bringing into focus the contradictions in the way the world is viewing the war in Ukraine and welcoming the unprecedented number of people fleeing that conflict.

While Hayden’s book details in great length the failures of the Western world in allowing people to drown in the Mediterranean, be locked up and abused in detention facilities in Libya, and sold, beaten and killed by traffickers, it also highlights the resilience of those fleeing conflict and other disasters while seeking out new lives and opportunities.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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