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How Europe’s Anti-Migrant Policies Gave Rise to “Absolutely Horrific” Refugee Prisons in Libya

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Image Credit: Sally Hayden

Western countries have opened their doors to millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war in their homeland, presenting a model of how refugees should be welcomed. But their experience stands in stark contrast to how African refugees are treated when attempting to reach Europe to escape war, hunger and despair. In her new book, “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. She says that since a 2017 European Union agreement with Libya to stop migrants before they cross the Mediterranean, many refugees have been imprisoned in hellish detention centers run by armed groups with little care for the safety or well-being of the people inside. “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.

As the world embraces Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion and presents a model for how refugees should be welcomed, we look now at how refugees from Africa face a very different story. The Western world has largely turned its back on the horrific conditions African migrants face inside Libyan detention centers. And this is the focus of a new book titled 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.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sally. Can you lay out how a single message to you from an Eritrean refugee being held in a Libyan detention center led to your interviews with hundreds of refugees and migrants who were fleeing to Europe but detained in Libya?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah, sure. And thank you for having me.

So, like you said, in August 2018, I got a Facebook message. 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.”

So, what this person said was there were 500 of them, men, women and children. They were in, effectively, a detention center. They had all pretty much tried to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea and been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, and at that point forced back to detention and locked up indefinitely, with no legal recourse, no way to get out. And a war had broken out around them, and the guards that had imprisoned them had run away, leaving them with no food and no 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. And the situation is absolutely horrific. It’s ongoing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sally, could you talk about the role of technology and social media in what is happening with many of these refugees?

SALLY HAYDEN: Yeah. I mean, social media is obviously the way that they contacted me. And what happened after that initial message, I actually started also posting the messages on social media, on Twitter, in a Twitter thread, and that ended up being viewed millions of times. And the result of that was that my name and my number and my contact details were passed around many detention centers. So I suddenly had many refugees in many different detention centers sending me messages on WhatsApp, on Facebook, on Twitter.

But social media, I mean, it kind of has good and bad aspects, but, you know, very, like, life-changing aspects. 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 NATO-backed bombing campaign that occurred in Libya, in terms of the EU utilizing 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. And, of course, you had, like, smugglers, human smugglers, taking advantage of that in the beginning. So there were a lot of refugees and migrants who come to Libya to try and cross into Europe.

But what has happened since 2017, particularly since the European Union is now spending hundreds of millions of euro on trying to effectively stop migration from Libya, that has turned into a monetization of 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. I mean, they all kind of work together. And that includes the Coast Guard, as well. The Coast Guard is a looser entity than you would believe, but still the EU still continues to work with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Sally, we just have a minute to go. Explain the title, My Fourth Time, We Drowned.

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 tried three times, when he was intercepted. The fourth time, two of his family members actually died. That’s what the “we drowned” refers to. The fifth time, he alone made it to safety, but, I mean, he even says himself, like, he feels like part of him has drowned by going through this process. 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 for The Irish Times. Her new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! has an immediate opening for a news writer/producer. Visit democracynow.org for details. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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