In 2018, Sally Hayden, an Irish Times journalist with a focus on Africa, received a message on Facebook: “Hi sister Sally, we need your help.” It was from an Eritrean refugee who had been held in a Libyan detention centre for several months – locked in a room and served only a small amount to eat.
The subsequent messages and communications brought Hayden to several countries to tell the stories of many individuals. Her new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, chronicles the stories of African migrants as they try to reach Europe and the painful journeys, pushbacks, starvation and torture they experience along the way. In it she asks: “How can we avoid growing immune to inequality across the world and make sure we are hearing pleas for help?’’
One element of this is education. “I think every European has a duty to educate themselves on what is happening in the Central Mediterranean," she says.
“I think every European has a duty to educate themselves on what is happening in the Central Mediterranean”
Hayden says the information in the book was hard won over the past five years: she was met with death threats and criminal investigations while her sources faced life-threatening risks during the reporting process.
Though she has been chronicling human rights atrocities against those turned away from Europe’s borders for many years, her book describes a pattern of people who have been locked up indefinitely without charge as a result of trying to reach safety – portraying a larger systemic failure.
“My book documents what is happening in detention centres that have been compared to concentration camps: rape, medical neglect, starvation as punishment, slavery-like forced labour and many other abuses,” she says, adding that the irony of the asylum law system is that you need to reach the territory of a country to claim your right to be protected by its government.
In her book she notes that by mid-2021, the European Union pledged €455m for Libya through a trust fund, and another €245m through other funding instruments, all labelled “EU support on migration in Libya”. However, Hayden says much of the EU money goes towards stopping migration and supporting the securitisation of borders rather than the improvement of conditions for the world’s most vulnerable people.
The money in the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is classified as emergency spending, so there is not as much oversight as there would be on regular EU spending. The lack of interest or awareness from the European public has also resulted in a lack of oversight.
In 2015, 1.3 million people claimed asylum in the EU. In comparison, 4.5 million Ukrainians have left their country in less than seven weeks, mostly entering the EU. Hayden notes the difference in treatment when it comes to Ukrainians – they have been freely welcomed and immediately granted rights, as opposed to African refugees, who have huge problems even getting on to European territory.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that the difference in treatment is that Ukraine and Europe have a shared history, given that many [African] countries were former European colonies – a clear shared history.” African sources she has spoken with say it is just racism.