Review: My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden

In 2017 the European Union embarked on a cruel new era of managing the “European migrant crisis”. It’s a phrase journalist Sally Hayden strictly avoids in this investigation; “This is a crisis … for the people who need protection,” she writes. After initial forays in rescuing refugees crossing the central Mediterranean, EU policy turned to funding the Libyan coast guard to turn back boats. The refugees would be held in detention centres in Libya indefinitely.

Of course Libya was hardly a safe place for its citizens, let alone people fleeing all manner of desperate situations. And so in 2018 Hayden, who had already been reporting on refugees and migration for some years, was contacted by a detainee in a centre in Tripoli to say that they were in the midst of war, as conflict renewed between the UN-backed government and other militias vying for control of the country. This led to a flood of messages from detainees to Hayden, who gained unparalleled access into what life is really like in the centres. Their accounts were harrowing, a catalogue of human rights violations: rape, torture, enslavement, starvation, illness and all manner of arbitrary and indefinite deprivation.

Moreover the use of an ailing state such as Libya by the EU drives a whole black market of smuggling and trafficking. Hayden illustrates this process particularly with the story of Eritreans fleeing compulsory military service under dictatorship to cross the Sahara Desert. They are first smuggled to Sudan, then into Libya, before attempting to cross the sea on unseaworthy boats, and then turned back to Libyan detention centres. At any point smugglers might ask for more money, which the refugees must find from families or through crowdfunding online. The cycle might repeat several times. As Hayden shows, it is not just the much-discussed “people smugglers” that are complicit in these schemes, but the Libyan government, and there have been connections to UN agencies too.

Built around Hayden’s reportage, My Fourth Time, We Drowned sets out to expose “the consequences of the European migration policies from the point that Europe becomes undeniably ethically culpable: when refugees are forcibly turned away”. In it she traces the decisions and events that have created this human rights disaster, from the Arab Spring to EU migration policy. She reports from Ethiopia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and the Europeans countries where some refugees might finally find tenuous refuge and where the laws and policies that decide their fates are determined. She isn’t able to visit Libya or the detention centres due to safety and issues with access. In the end the distance this affords is to Hayden’s advantage. She finds that visiting EU policymakers and UN agencies often have less of a grasp of the reality on the ground than she does. She regularly becomes a source of information for NGOs and other refugees, and comes under attack from governments and organisations when her information doesn’t suit them. When Europeans visit the centres the buildings are cleaned and the detainees are instructed put on a show of contentment. In one detainees perform a reenactment of their “rescue” at sea for International Migrant’s Day. Later, a person is locked in a torture chamber for two months for speaking to visitors.

You might come away from this book feeling like the opacity and complexity of the “official” migration system is by design. “UNCHR is just a business,” writes one detainee in a text to Hayden, voicing their fears that the exploitation will never stop. “UNHCR are smugglers really, but the only difference is the source of money for them is not from us but from the EU,” writes another. The agency receives millions of dollars from the EU to process detainees, sorting them into refugees who may eventually be “evacuated” from Libya and “resettled” elsewhere, and the people who have to decide whether to stay in the hell of detention or return to the hell of the countries that they came from. Hayden doesn’t hide her dismay and disdain for the white staff of agencies and NGOs on enormous salaries, living in gated resorts and working on laptops by the pools under the sun in African countries. Such examples speak to the wholesale brokenness of a system notionally designed to help people in need.

In the same way Hayden warns to be wary of language used in this arena, the one that sorts people into categories like “refugees”, “asylum seekers”, “economic migrants” and “illegal immigrants”. Hayden exposes a bureaucracy that sustains itself, protecting the political interests of EU members. At one point she cites Australia’s detention regime, much-admired by policymakers in Europe for its dissuasion of would-be migrants by making seeking asylum so excruciating that people would rather not. The cruelty is the point; as is making “legal” avenues for seeking safety and prosperity so elusive and arbitrary. “It was not only persecution, violence and war pushing refugees to make dangerous journeys,” Hayden writes, “but the belief that legal routes to safety were closed or unfairly administered, and that the organisation supposed to be looking out for them was not on their side.” When about halfway through Hayden quotes British columnist Katie Hopkins spouting rubbish in The Sun the effect is startling. No longer are her words irritating or vaguely amusing outbursts of hystericism but cold and abject.

Although not the goal of her investigation, there are glimpses of alternative visions in this book. “Surely allowing migration to richer countries was a necessary kind of aid too … letting Africans earn money from the systems that had abused them for so long,” Hayden writes, echoing the conclusions of UN Special Rapporteur E Tendayi Achiume. Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando not only seems to have the strongest grasp of the reality of the situation in Libya of any European politician Hayden speaks to, but seems to have a vision for a different treatment of borders. “One million, two million, three million, four million? … Do you think that Europe is not big enough to welcome everybody?” he asks her rhetorically. Free movement remains an elusive dream, but scholars like Harsha Walia have outlined the case against borders and writers like Amitav Ghosh have considered the role of free movement in fighting climate injustice.

It’s not an easy read, organised neither linearly or with any particular direction; chapters are arrayed according to the location they centre on. Hayden writes with a journalist’s clarity but does not attempt to reduce the complexity where she would have to make leaps of inference. In an author’s note she describes how publishers asked her to fictionalise or polemicise this investigation; it’s all the stronger for her resisting those calls. She worries about the misuse of refugees’s stories by journalists such as herself. “The voices of of refugees in Libya were constantly filtered through privileged white people like me,” she writes. Her corrective is to intersperse the messages of detained refugees throughout the book, mostly anonymous for protection. This gesture towards writing refugees back into their own story mostly works well to remind us of the people living amongst the bureaucratic jargon and behind walls. “A refugee is someone who survived and can create the future,” writes one, “the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Other books by detained refugees, such as that of Behrooz Boochani, held in Papua New Guinea for four years by the Australian government, are well worth seeking out to add to the story. But My Fourth Time, We Drowned does what it needs to, exposing an opaque system of cruelty, and documenting it for if and when the time for justice arrives.

Gay rating: 2/5 for some discussion of queer refugees.


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