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New Book Documents Role of U.N. & EU in Humanitarian Crisis for African Refugees Held in Libyan Prisons

Web ExclusiveMarch 30, 2022
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In Part 2 of our interview with Sally Hayden, author of the new book, “My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route,” she discusses the conditions in Libyan refugee prisons and the role of the European Union and the United Nations in the humanitarian crisis. Hayden also describes how the Ukraine war has led to fuel and food shortages in many African countries. Hayden is the Africa correspondent for The Irish Times.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with Sally Hayden, the Africa correspondent for The Irish Times, author of the new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.

In Part 1, we began to talk about the condition of these Libyan detention centers — I mean, prisons, hellholes — where so many refugees are kept, even as we celebrate now the world embracing Ukrainian refugees, as of course the world should.

But the question is: Why isn’t this a model, Sally, for how all refugees should be treated? And I was wondering if you could start off by talking about that contrast, but also why so many, particularly in Africa, end up in these Libyan detention centers.

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah, sure. I mean, I was actually talking to one of the sources for my book about this last week, and he effectively said he thinks that there’s racism. I mean, what is happening in Ukraine is absolutely horrific, and it’s really great that people are being welcomed, and I also hope that lasts. But I think that, you know, we had this so-called European immigration crisis in 2015, and that whole year, I think it was 1.3 million people claimed asylum in the EU, and we’ve already had nearly 4 million people from Ukraine cross into Europe. And I think for a lot of people who have reported on what’s happening on Europe’s other borders and the, like, very aggressive attempts to stop people from crossing them, it’s been quite kind of almost shocking, I guess, to see that there actually can be this kind of empathetic reaction. It’s heartening in a way, but it’s also kind of shocking, because what’s happening on other borders is, you know, aggressively, effectively, like sentencing some people to death. And yeah, I think we need to see how things develop, but it has kind of shown us that a more empathetic policy is possible, but then also made people question why hasn’t that been happening already.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain this “world’s deadliest migration route.”

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. I mean, that wasn’t — I didn’t coin that term. That came from the U.N., actually. And that’s based on the figures of people that die trying to cross the central Mediterranean. So it’s the route from Libya, generally, to Italy or Malta. And what you have in Libya is like a collection of people who have fled a lot of different situations — so, for example, dictatorship in Eritrea, al-Shabab and conflict in Somalia, war in South Sudan, Darfur and Sudan. And then you also have what’s more so called economic migrants who are coming from West Africa, from like very impoverished countries, where they’re basically trying to flee to find opportunity or often things like healthcare. And they’re all kind of meeting in Libya, where people can try — they try and cross the sea, if you can pay a smuggler enough money. And a few get lucky enough to get a smuggler that will actually release you to let you try and cross the sea. And it’s at that point now that they’re getting intercepted and locked up in detention.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the European Union?

SALLY HAYDEN: So, the EU — I mean, the EU is involved in boat surveillance. So, they’re no longer — they don’t have vessels anymore that go out and do search and rescue, but they do surveillance, so they fly planes, helicopters, drones to spot the refugee boats. And that information is communicated to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, who then go out and carry out interceptions, effectively forcing people back to Libya, where they’re then locked up, generally. So, that’s — the EU is playing a role, but they’re not directly intercepting the boats themselves, because that would be illegal under international law.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain where the refugees come from.

SALLY HAYDEN: I mean, all sorts of countries, particularly the ones that I interviewed, particularly Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, Darfur and Sudan, as well, and then, you know, like I said, various West African countries, but they’d more be considered economic migrants, but they’d be a lot of Nigerians, some Sierra Leoneans, Gambians. Yeah, those tend to be the main ones.

AMY GOODMAN: And the conditions in the detention camps? Paint a picture for us.

SALLY HAYDEN: I mean, I write in the book that each detention center had its own particular definition of hell, because it depends slightly on the detention center. I mean, pretty much everything bad that you can imagine happens in each one. But in some, for example, food was denied as a punishment. So there’d be — you know, there was pretty much starvation in all of them, but food could be denied as a punishment. Medical neglect. People that I interviewed lost like 25 to 30 kilos, because they were being fed so little food, maybe once a day, just plain pasta, nothing else. Rape, of course. Torture. Forced labor was quite common, people being taken out and forced to work in farms or in houses or even for militias, loading weapons, loading and unloading weapons. Yeah, and then, just generally, you could just be locked in a hole for — you know, a big hangar, like, for one year. Like, some people, they said they never saw sunlight. They just never got outside. They never saw sunlight. They didn’t feel fresh air.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain where they’re hoping to get to.

SALLY HAYDEN: I mean, like, most everyone that I speak to, they just want to get to safety. They’re trying to get to a place where they can feel security and where they can also claim asylum. And it’s important to remember that a lot of them would be recognized as refugees if they were in a situation where they could claim asylum or where they could claim their refugee status. And so, the horrible irony of European migration policy, anyway, is that once you’re on European territory, you can then claim your legal right to protection, but you need to get onto that territory first. And so that’s why you end up with so many people who are trying these desperate routes to get onto European territory, because once they get there, they will have a legal right to stay there.

AMY GOODMAN: Sally Hayden, your book is really extraordinary, and you have faced threats as a result of your reporting. Can you explain what you have confronted?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. I mean, personally, I’ve faced death threats, kind of, yeah, security — various security problems. I was also under investigation for a year myself as a smuggler, which kind of speaks to the enduring criminalization of — you know, there’s a lot of — there’s basically criminalization of people that are involved in helping, which I wasn’t. I was just a journalist. But the people who even report on this are now in danger of facing these kind of threats, which — I mean, that allegation was dropped, but it kind of has a chilling effect on you. All of this makes you frightened to keep reporting on this topic. And I didn’t realize when I started — like you said, I just got a Facebook message out of nowhere. I didn’t know that I was going to end up spending years reporting on this. But I also then realized, quite quickly, actually, how dangerous it is to report on this, because you immediately or quite quickly come under quite sustained pressure not to keep doing this.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just looking at an Intercept piece by Natasha Lennard, the headline, “Italian Mayor Who Housed Mideast and African Migrants Faces 13 Years in Prison: While welcoming refugees from Ukraine, Italy continues its ‘Fortress Europe’ prosecution of former Mayor Domenico Lucano.” How typical is this?

SALLY HAYDEN: I mean, so I haven’t reported exactly on that case. But the irony for me is, in the book, I actually attended — there were two smugglers, that were actually very significant smugglers, who had tortured, you know, potentially tens of thousands of people, were responsible for deaths, were responsible for like a lot of absolutely atrocious things. And they were apprehended in Ethiopia. And I actually went to their trial, and I ended up being the only international observer. And I contacted European diplomats. I contacted human rights groups, the U.N. Nobody else ended up observing that. And actually one of them then escaped from prison.

And so, I think that we hear a lot of rhetoric from politicians saying they want to fight smuggling, but when it actually comes to the people who are responsible for huge atrocities, I don’t know that there are the same types of, you know, attempts to have them prosecuted. And at the same stage, then we are seeing other prosecutions that are focusing on the people who are involved in helping, you know, and that’s even the rescue ships that operate in the Mediterranean, the independent ones. They’re all absolutely terrified all the time that they’re going to face criminal prosecution. But then, when we have these men who were responsible for actual massive atrocities, you know, one of them just escaped. So…

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to switch gears, but it is another issue that Africa will confront that does relate to the Ukraine war. The European Union is set to give $200 million to northern African countries to counter grain shortages caused by Russians’ war in Ukraine. According to the World Food Programme, Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of the world’s wheat, 20% of the world’s corn, 75% of the world’s sunflower oil. Russia and Ukraine supply almost 90% of Kenya’s wheat imports, according to figures released by the U.N. So, you’re based in Nairobi, Kenya, as a reporter for The Irish Times. And you just wrote a piece headlined “Africa suffers devastating fallout from Ukraine war.” You write, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, quote, “People describe queuing for hours for petrol, if it is available at all. Many also rely on fuel to power generators, as the national electricity supply is unstable.” Can you lay out what you found with Ukraine, the situation there, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, impacting fuel and food accessibility in Africa, and what it also will mean?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. I mean, so far what I have heard, and from the people I’ve spoken to — I left Kenya on Saturday — but in East Africa, it seems to be more the wheat is an issue, rises in the price of wheat. And in West Africa, right now it seems to be fuel that is — you know, already the cost of fuel is going up in multiple countries. And both of those things, they lead to instability, you know? I think that, in Kenya, that — I interviewed a baker. He said that they haven’t — you know, an industrial baker. He said that it hasn’t hit them as hard as it will, but it’s going to get a lot worse, and they expect the cost of everything else to go up at the same time. At the moment they still have some stores, so they can still use those.

I know, in Sierra Leone, there have actually been, you know, violent protests because of the cost of fuel now. And also, like, the electricity supply isn’t stable. So people use fuel for generators, as well, so it’s electricity that’s also affected. There, the cost of fuel went up from like 12,000 leones, which is like $1.20 to $1.50, which is very big for people that don’t have a lot of money. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world.

Yeah, and I think it just needs to be watched, like, for example, in Sudan. I have some friends in Sudan, and there have been massive protests. I mean, even Bashir, the ex-dictator, was partially unseated. You know, that whole process slightly began because of protests over the price of bread. And now we have a situation that the price of bread is going to rise much, much higher. So, yeah, I anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of instability caused by that. And then you also have drought already in the Horn of Africa. So, any rise in price, when you already have people starving there, is also, you know, devastating.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question: What most shocked you in your reporting, Sally — you’ve been a longtime Africa correspondent for The Irish Times — but in writing this book, in doing these hundreds of interviews, and then it coming out at this time where, you know, one group of refugees is cherished, is — the world’s heart is just broken, and what it means when you contrast that with another set of refugees who have been fighting — who are fleeing persecution and poverty and how they are treated?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. I mean, I said in the book I wanted to document what had happened from the point that Europe is undeniably ethically culpable, which for me is when these interceptions take place. So the point of the book was to document what is happening to the now 90,000 people who have been intercepted at sea and then forced back to Libya and, in most cases, or many cases, locked up indefinitely. And for me, that was shocking. Like I even felt that I was complicit, because I hadn’t been aware of the consequences of our policies. And it’s very easy now. There are so many structures built up so that we don’t have to realize that this is happening. And I think many Europeans, even many people in the rich world, generally don’t realize it’s happening, because it’s very easy to turn away from that. And I’m also hoping that it will shock other people that read the book. You know, that’s — I wrote it just because I wanted people not to be able to say they don’t know about it anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Sally Hayden, Africa correspondent for The Irish Times, author of the new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route. We’ll also link to your articles in The Irish Times.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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