Book Review: Sally Hayden tells forgotten tales of refugees at sea

Sally Hayden's book on those travelling the world's deadliest migration route is both heartrending and compelling, writes Noel Baker
Book Review: Sally Hayden tells forgotten tales of refugees at sea

Refugees and migrants after leaving Libya, trying to reach Europe aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, north of Libyan coast, in 2018. In total 105 refugees and migrants from Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Marrocos, Gana, Pakistan, Sudan, Libya, Eritrea and Senegal were rescued in the overcrowded rubber boat. Picture: Felipe Dana/AP

"People are bleeding a lot; now, I need emergency assistance. Please share for us to the world. Please, please, please, dear, we are in danger..."

It's hard to imagine how many of us would react to receiving a bulletin like this on Facebook Messenger, sent by a stricken asylum seeker enduring unimaginable treatment, and worse, in a Libyan detention centre, but for Sally Hayden, these messages were all-too-real and all-too-frequent. As Europe is plunged into another refugee crisis due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, her book, My Fourth Time We Drowned, is a timely reminder of an earlier but enduring calamity along the Mediterranean coast, and the extent to which the EU and others botched the job.

Hayden is an excellent journalist whose work has featured in various publications and on broadcast media across Europe and America, and the sheer commitment of the Dublin-born reporter to the plight of those trying to make it into Europe from Africa is to be admired. 

As she explains, it all started with a message to her phone, unsolicited and uninvited but absolutely pivotal in leading her to research the abuses faced by so many on what was already a perilous journey. Her phone and its associated messaging apps quickly became a conduit for people from countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia who fall foul of the brutality of people traffickers - those who exploit those who already have little or nothing.

It is often a deeply troubling and sometimes corruscating read. In almost all cases, Libya is the location where those dreams of a better life in Europe are stalled, battered, or extinguished. While those in western Europe were deeply moved by the sight of Alan Kurdi, the little boy whose body was tossed onto a beach following a tragic, failed attempt to cross from Bodrom in Turkey on an inflatable boat, the situation elsewhere on the Mediterranean was just as deadly. 

As Hayden illustrates, the difference here was that the EU worked with forces in Libya, by then effectively a failed state, to keep people out - and in doing so condemned many to unforgettable, nightmarish experiences.

Take the Souq al Khamis detention centre in the port city on Khoms, where warnings were daubed on the walls. "Who comes to this house, may God help you. Libya is a market of human beings." And nearby, another: "Where is UNHCR? Three people were sold here."

The messages received by Hayden, verified and trusted, depict a medieval system in which beatings, rape, and torture were commonplace, people who had already trekked across the Sahara having expended their life savings now illegally detained by often racist gatekeepers, keen to squeeze yet more money from them just so they can eventually - if they are lucky - find themselves bobbing on the dark seas of the Med.

You could, if you were so minded, quibble about the genesis of the journey in some of these cases, the core reason why people left their country of origin, although it’s clear many are leaving places where they feel they will only ever live a half-life, either because they are conscripted for life in a country such as Eritrea or because they are facing violence and oppression elsewhere. 

Writer and journalist Sally Hayden, author of ‘My Fourth Time, We Drowned’, details the horrific atrocities she witnessed and discovered across the sea.
Writer and journalist Sally Hayden, author of ‘My Fourth Time, We Drowned’, details the horrific atrocities she witnessed and discovered across the sea.

But from Hayden’s book it is clear that those who found themselves in this Libyan dystopia needed rescuing; the very act of taking on this refugee’s journey led them to a horrific juncture where their basic and human rights were ignited, negated, trod on, desecrated. But for many, the rescue never arrived.

The horrors detailed within the pages of My Fourth Time We Drowned should prove chastening reading for the UN agencies whose job it was to ensure such suffering didn't take place. Here they are depicted as hopelessly ineffective at best, while the EU's fortress mentality resulted in it doing business with Libyan authorities happy to allow people to not see sunlight for a year, trapped in warehouses, surviving on little more than basic rations of macaroni and cheese and whatever vision of a better future they can hold onto.

The evolving crisis in Ukraine has brought a fresh refugee crisis front and centre, and has also highlighted the importance of having free and independent media operating on the ground, close to the action. One example is the supreme reporting of Orla Guerin and others on the BBC, another the brilliance of AP's reportage from Mariupol.

Yet despite often having to filter fact from fiction through her smartphone, Hayden proves equally dogged in her pursuit of the story, zoning in on the struggles of individuals who contact her and ultimately coming face-to-face with many of them. She travels to Rwanda to see how some of those who failed to make it to Europe find themselves being hosted by a country that just a few decades ago was home to appalling, genocidal slaughter. 

She is in the courtroom when the notorious boss of a hellish detention centre in Libya is brought before a judge to answer for his crimes. She is in shiny EU buildings asking piercing questions of those all-too-keen to deflect from the atrocities happening across the sea, and she also takes to the waves on a boat charged with picking up those drifting on the Med. The only place that seems out of reach is Libya itself, and that is due, as she explains it, to trusted reports that her life might be in danger were she to travel there.

The issue of people from a vast continent wanting to fulfil their dreams in Europe isn't going to disappear any time soon. Climate change is likely to expedite the process, and reading Hayden's book, it is easy to fall into despair at the poverty of the response so far and the likelihood that things may get worse in the future.

My Fourth Time We Drowned is a quietly angry book, and it's likely on reading it that you'll experience a similar sense of fury: that people were bought and sold a sea crossing away from where tourists frolic on European beaches, that people's physical, mental and emotional lives were destroyed by heartless desperados happy to exploit those with nothing. And also an anger that we still tend, even now, to look the other way.

"It's beyond my word to explain the inhumanity that happened," says a detainee at one centre. But another puts it best: "We can say that there is killing, threats, raping, hunger, but it's already known by the world."

At least Hayden can say that she has done her bit to remind us of all this, the known horrors we could and should be aware of, but which we find all too easy to cast to one side.

My Fourth Time We Drowned, by Sally Hayden, is published by 4th Estate. €15.

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