A shocking tale of abuse – and official collusion

Mike Phipps reviews My Fourth Time, We Drowned, by Sally Hayden, publish by 4th Estate

In August 2018, Sally Hayden received a message from someone who was trapped in Ain Zara migrant detention camp in Tripoli, Libya, along with hundreds of others. The guards who had been mistreating them for months had fled when fighting broke out in the city.

“They had one phone between hundreds, which the detainees had kept hidden for month. He said it was the phone a smuggler gave him to bring on board the rubber boat, so they could call for rescue once it inevitably began to sink. The European Union was responsible for the situation they were now in – it was Europe that had forced them back.”

The detainees had been starved, raped, abused and forced to work in the houses of wealthy Libyans. Despite UN claims to have regular access to such camps, the detainees were not registered on any list: “it was a human rights disaster of epic proportions.”

But it was not unique. Some 6,000 people were being held indefinitely in more than twenty such centres in Libya. People seeking to escape the country and find a safe passage to Europe were being intercepted and forced back. The EU was spending nearly 100 million euros on the Libyan coastguard to make this possible, allowing the EU itself to get around international law.

“Captives had seen friends escape detention centres only to be killed by militias that patrolled the streets. Others were shot trying to get away. They told me how tuberculosis ended lives and food deprivation left people lying motionless on the ground.”

In April 2019, the EU Commissioner responsible called Libyan detention centres “a disgrace.” A month earlier, the UN’s Secretary General for Human Rights reported on interviews he had carried out with former detainees: “Every one of them – men, women, boys and girls – had been raped, many repeatedly, and tortured by widespread electrocution.” Yet in October 2019, the European Parliament rejected a motion calling on the EU to end cooperation with the Libyan coastguard, if it carried out serious fundamental rights violations.

Travelling across North Africa, Sally Hayden traced the routes and heard the harrowing stories of refugees, some children, fleeing authoritarian regimes. One victim of smugglers said he had seen 29 people die in front of him. Some people were held for months and forced to call their families to send more money.

Pictures of detainees would be posted on Facebook to extort money from loved ones. Billions of dollars are estimated to have been extorted in this way. People who refused take part were raped or beaten to death.

Those who made it as far as the Mediterranean Sea risked drowning – six people a day died trying to cross in 2018 – or being captured by the EU-financed ‘Libyan coastguard’, often former smugglers, and detained in inhumane conditions for months, families separated, illnesses untreated.

When external authorities or aid organisations visited, the electricity would be switched on – usually it was off- and those who had been beaten or tortured would be hidden. Inmates were told not to speak out on pain of severe punishment.

Hayden is also highly critical of the role of international agencies. The International Rescue Committee, headed by former Labour grandee David Miliband on a salary of almost a million dollars a year, stopped giving detainees medical treatment after two of its staff caught TB. The UN High Commission for Refugees spends a lot of its time ‘managing expectations’, in other words, telling detainees their asylum cases are bound to fail – one detainee set fire to himself and died after one such intervention.

Hayden was already unsettled by the huge salaries and expenses enjoyed by UN staff.  Interviewing refugees in Sudan, she learned of their corruption too: how staff took bribes of tens of thousands of dollars in return for organising resettlement. When victims tried to protest at UN offices, they were beaten by police.

When the author published her report on this in 2018, the UNHCR simply suspended its programme in Sudan. Witnesses were threatened. After a year’s internal investigation, just one staff member was dismissed.

When Libya’s civil war re-erupted in 2019, detainees were targeted – for their faith, their meagre possessions, or for no reason at all. At Qasr bin Ghashir, militiamen opened fire on refugees, killing and injuring several. The UNHCR spread disinformation, saying nobody had been shot, a statement contradicted by Médecins Sans Frontières , who come out of this sorry tale rather better than some of the other NGOs involved.

Refugees there had refused to be evacuated to Zintan, a notorious camp south west of Tripoli, nicknamed ‘Guantanamo’, where water was turned on for only ten minutes a day. By early 2019 so many detainees had died there that there was no more storage space for the bodies. One inmate who contracted TB and lost 25 kilograms told the author: “We are victim by UNHCR in Libya. We are abused by human rights organisations.”

Even worse than Zintan was Tajoura, a detention centre located within a huge military complex that was also the headquarters of the Daman militia. There inmates were tortured – one to death –for trying to escape.  It was the location of other killings too.

Some detainees were held for years. Others – including children – were forced to fight for the militia or used as human shields. When the camp was bombed during Libya’s deadly civil war, inmates remained locked in, unable to escape. Over 100 were killed, although the UN downplayed the number of casualties.

Four days after the bombing, inmates staged a hunger strike, rejecting better food and instead demanding safety. When the UN offered to transfer a few of the detainees, the survivors en masse rejected the deal. In the end they were told they were free to leave and walked out, albeit with nowhere safe to go. Later the UN claimed they had been “evacuated… to safety.”

When refugees went in numbers to a less brutal UN-run ‘Gathering and Departure Facility’, the UN decided to halt all food provision until they went elsewhere. After days without food, they refugees were starved into submission.

Then Rwanda was announced as a new site for warehousing refugees – sound familiar? – despite being ranked in the eighteen worst countries in the world for press freedom and being run by an “authoritarian dictator, accused of physically beating his own subordinates, crushing opposition and ordering the assassination of his opponents abroad.”

There’s not much to celebrate here – the occasional prosecution of people smugglers, the commitment of those who defy laws to search the Mediterranean to rescue drowning migrants, the protracted attempts to mount legal challenges to EU policy.  Even the refugees who make it to Europe face discrimination, joblessness and long term trauma stemming from their treatment en route.

And this was all before the war in Tigray started in late 2020. Soon “Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers were accused of mass rapes, massacres and other war crimes, as were the rebels they were fighting against. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian civilians fled to eastern Sudan. Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray were looted and destroyed.”

The events described in Sally Hayden’s book are hard to read about but far harder to have experienced. She is to be commended for resisting the advice of literary agents to condense, simplify and fictionalise, and instead she has produced a towering, prize-winning work of great insight, at some cost to her own wellbeing.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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