European Anti-Migrant Policies Gave Rise to Horrific Refugee Jails in Libya

Western countries have welcomed millions of Ukrainians fleeing war in Ukraine and provided a model for how refugees should be treated. However, their experience is a stark contrast to the treatment of African refugees trying to reach Europe to escape poverty, war and hunger. Her new book is available here My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, author Sally Hayden details how a single message from an Eritrean refugee held in a Libyan detention center led her on a years-long journey to document the human rights disaster on Europe’s doorstep. According to her, many refugees have been held in detention centers that are run by armed groups and do not care about their safety or well-being since the 2017 European Union agreement with Libya to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. “Tens of thousands of people have been locked up in detention centers that Pope Francis, among many others, have compared to concentration camps,” says Hayden. “The situation is absolutely horrific.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We now turn our attention to the story of African refugees. The West has largely ignored the horrible conditions African migrants endure in Libyan detention facilities. This is the topic of a new book called My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route. It’s just out this week. We’re joined by Sally Hayden, its author, Africa correspondent for The Irish Times.

We are glad you are here Democracy Now!, Sally. Can you explain how one message from an Eritrean refugee held in a Libyan jail led to your interviews of hundreds of migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe, but were held in Libya?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah, sure. Thank you for having me.

As you know, I received a Facebook message in August 2018. It just said, “Hi, Sister Sally. I need your help. I’m under” — I think something like — “detention in Libyan prison.” They said “a Libyan prison.” “And if you have time, I’ll tell you all the story.” And I was kind of skeptical, because I didn’t really know where this had come from, why I had been contacted, like how someone in a prison would have my name or phone even. But I messaged back, and I said, “OK, tell me about it.”

According to this person, there were 500 of them. They were, in effect, in a detention facility. They had all tried to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea crossing. However, they were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and forced back into detention. There was no legal recourse and no way out. The war broke out around them and the guards who had taken them to prison fled, leaving them without food and water.

And so, this one message basically led me on what’s been now nearly four years of an investigation. And what I found out was that tens of thousands of people — I mean, to date now, since 2017, around 90,000 people — have been caught at sea under what is an EU policy which supports the Libyan Coast Guard, because under international law it’s illegal for — it’s illegal for European boats to return people to a place where their lives are in danger. And so, their lives are in danger in Libya, but if the EU supports the Libyan Coast Guard, then Libyan boats do the intercepting, that’s not illegal under international law. So it’s effectively a circumnavigation of international law. And yeah, like thousands of people — tens of thousands of people have been locked up in detention centers that Pope Francis, among many others, have compared to concentration camps, where every sort of abuse happens. The situation is truly horrific. It’s ongoing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sally, could your talk be about the role of technology in helping many of these refugees to flee?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. They contacted me via social media. After that initial message, I began posting the messages on Twitter in a thread on Twitter. That thread was viewed millions of time. My name, number, and contact details were then passed around to many detention centres. I received messages from many refugees in different detention centers, including on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter.

However, social media has both good and bad sides, but it can also have life-changing benefits. What I found out was that, for example, when smugglers detain people in Libya, they’re now crowd-funding. So they’ll post photos of people who are being tortured online so that they can crowd-fund larger and larger ransoms. It’s really contributed to how captivity is being monetized. So it’s kind of raising the cost, but it’s also giving people a lifeline to try and be able to escape these situations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about how the — what the situation with Libya, and in terms of refugees, is like after the overthrow of Gaddafi and the NATOLibyan-backed bombing campaign, as the EU uses Libya as a gatekeeper to Africa

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure many people know, after the 2011 revolution, Libya has been in turmoil. It’s effectively a country that’s run between militias, like many different militias. There are multiple governments. There hasn’t really been a stable leadership since, since that revolution. You had, like, human smugglers and smugglers taking advantage of that beginning. There were many migrants and refugees who came to Libya to cross into Europe.

What has happened since 2017, especially since the European Union has spent hundreds of millions of euros trying to stop migration from Libya. This has become a monetization for captivity. So it’s more likely now that people, like refugees, are being moved around different detention centers, or even smuggling gangs, in these kind of, like, cycles there. It’s not so clear-cut always, you know, what is an official government-associated detention center and what is something being run by smugglers. They all kind of work together. The Coast Guard is included in this group. Although the Coast Guard is a less rigid entity than you might think, the EU continues to work with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Sally, you have just a minute. Please explain the title. My Fourth Time, We Drank.

SALLY HAYDEN: It actually comes from a quote by a Somali refugee who’s now in Europe, and he was speaking about the amount of times that they’ve tried to cross the sea before reaching safety. He attempted three times before he was stopped. Two of his relatives actually died the fourth time he tried. That’s what the “we drowned” refers to. He was the only one to make it to safety the fifth time. But, he says he feels like a part of him has drowned through this experience. You know, part of him is dead because of the suffering he’s witnessed and the family members that he’s lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sally, we’re going to do Part 2 of this interview, where we’re going to talk about how, actually, the war in Ukraine will affect famine in Africa, and also talk about the role of organizations like the European Union in using Libya for these detention camps, what some have called concentration camps, for refugees fleeing poverty and persecution. Sally Hayden, Africa correspondent The Irish Times. Her new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.

This is it for our show. Democracy Now! There is an immediate opening news writer/producer. Visit for details. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Keep safe.