Migrant deaths at sea are a crime against humanity

Migrant deaths at sea are a crime against humanity
In her new book, Sally Hayden gives a blistering account of the North African refugee crisis. She speaks to writer Frances Leach about the negligence of NGOs and whether the crisis in Ukraine could change attitudes towards displaced people.

In her landmark book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned (4th Estate), journalist and author Sally Hayden puts the voices of migrants and refugees front and centre. It is a shocking investigation into the migrant crisis across North Africa, following the experiences of those seeking sanctuary, while also surveying the wider picture, from the negligence of NGOs to the economics of the 21st-century slave trade.

The day we sit down to talk, a joint investigation led by Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel revealed the EU border agency Frontex’s involvement in what appeared to be pushbacks in the Mediterranian. The night before, the new Anti-Refugee Bill passed into law, effectively criminalising seeking asylum. 

The book tells of an unwinnable system, one so cruel and dysfunctional that it is barely comprehensible. In this game, nobody comes out a winner – not the EU, not the UN, not the politicians. But none lose more than the migrants. 

What does the book’s title refer to?

It comes from a quote from a Somali refugee I interviewed for the book, which is: “I was caught by the Libyan Coast Guard three times, my fourth time we drowned, my fifth time we made it to safety”. I thought it made sense that the title was one of the original direct messages I was sent by a refugee in Libya.

What it epitomises to me is the number of attempts that people are making now to try and reach safety… Several of his family members died on that crossing [the Mediterranean] – they drowned. So by the time he actually did make it alone, he’s heavily traumatised. He knows that he’s technically one of the lucky ones, but he’s been through such kind of horror that I think it’s going to be very hard to move on from that.

We talk about this concept of ‘safety’ but in the book, you discuss what happens to the migrants who make it to ‘safe’ countries like Sweden. What did you find happened to them there?

I think the feeling of safety is not just about your physical location. You have to do an interview, then another, you’re being questioned constantly… Then even if your status is granted, you are given certain rights that can be easily taken away from you should the politics in a country change. I think most refugees have seen that kind of shift that can come from anywhere, and so they don’t ever feel secure. I describe in the book, sleepless nights, people pacing a lot – and that was something that I heard from pretty much everybody who I was in touch with. 

So in a strange sense what’s happening in Libya is so horrific, but everybody’s in it together. There’s this communal support, and there were a lot of acts of kindness and a lot of people help each other. Along these routes, they do quite heroic things, but then suddenly you’re alone in a country in a system where people don’t understand what you’ve been through. 

The point on not understanding just how traumatic their journeys are – how do you think that impacts those who are now settled in Europe?

A lot of people I spoke with were grappling with this, many just stop speaking about their past completely. They cut ties with people who were in Libya and even with people from home, sometimes they shut off their social media. They just realised that they were having to begin this new life and part of that was forgetting what they had been through because, otherwise, they couldn’t engage with people in their new country. 

In Sweden, I went out to meet my contacts who had been in Libya, and they had been held in a detention centre where someone was dying an average of every two weeks. We met up and said we’d celebrate them finally arriving in Europe after all these years. But then they started talking about Libya. At one point as I was asking questions, one guy started tearing up and I said, you don’t have to talk about this. And he said, no, actually, I want to because I don’t get this opportunity anymore. 

I notice in the book you make a clear point about language, particularly in regards to how it can inform what we think or feel about some of the events and people described. Why did you do that?

The language we use is incredibly important in shaping this issue. One of the chapters in the book looks at the attempts for legal accountability. For example, the lawyer Omer Shatz, who did a submission to the ICC calling for the EU to be tried on crimes against humanity over migrant deaths, said that the use of the word ‘migrants’ is being done deliberately to remove people from society. It’s being used to effectively justify the atrocities against these people because if we had a group of tourists, for example, who were drowning in the Mediterranean, they would be rescued or there will be attempts made to rescue them. But if we have a group of ‘migrants’, they leave them to drown.

I started questioning myself about the use of terms like ‘economic migrants’. In Sierra Leone, the life expectancy is 26 years below what it is in Europe and it’s one of the most dangerous countries in the world to give birth – 10 per cent of children die under the age of five. And it’s so poor, but that’s poverty, translated to a risk to life in terms of poor medical care. But those leaving Sierra Leone are referred to as economic migrants, so they have no right to claim asylum. But they clearly have a risk to their life. 

I think that we need to question these terms that we use, who is bringing them into force, where they’re coming from and how that language ends up justifying some of the horrible things that are happening.

In the book, UN agencies, the EU border agency Frontex and even some NGOs seem to be complicit in the exploitation of migrants. Why do you think there’s so much corruption and abuse in immigration?

When you have huge demand and very small supply, you will always have exploitation. Those systems are never going to be as clear cut as they might be portrayed. How do you select if you have one space for 300 people, how do you determine the most vulnerable? What does that even mean? And if you have a lot of refugees who aren’t trusting in this system, then they don’t see that as the legal route. They see that as something that is just another occasion of them being exploited. 

It’s not just about queue jumping – there isn’t even a queue.

We’ve seen in the news the announcement from Home Secretary Priti Patel that the UK government is planning to send ‘illegal immigrants’ offshore to Rwanda. How do you think this will impact the asylum seekers and migrants you know who are trying to come to the UK?

Part of this kind of search to seek safety is a bit like snakes and ladders, isn’t it? There’s kind of a sad irony for people who have been through Libya that Rwanda is also being used as a transit country for evacuees from Libya. We’ve seen the deal between Israel and Rwanda where thousands of people were brought there from Israel and pretty much all of them left again [reportedly either through escape or bribing officials] and many tried again to make their way to Europe. 

I’ve been to Rwanda three times to report, including on the treatment of refugees there, and there are a lot of very traumatised people there who survived the genocide. And it is, at this point, effectively a police state and a dictatorship. This means there are hardly any journalists who can scrutinise these places, they don’t have access and there isn’t a free press so even if you did get in, you couldn’t properly report on what’s happening there.

In light of the international response to people escaping Ukraine and being offered a ‘sped up’ asylum application process and the Homes for Ukraine scheme, would you say there’s a difference in the treatment of certain types of refugees and migrants?

What’s happening in Ukraine is absolutely horrific. It’s been shocking to see how Europe has reacted to these refugees. I’ve spoken to other journalists who report on European borders and they say that it gave them a glimmer of hope after years of being told that a more empathetic policy isn’t possible. 

I think we have to question whether that will be applied to others in the future, I’m quite sceptical that it would be. When you look back at it, 1.3 million people claimed asylum in the European refugee crisis in 2015, and now we have more than six million refugees from Ukrainian who have crossed into Europe. It’s also good to remember that people are leaving in such great numbers because they’re able to, there’s infrastructure like trains to get on to escape, there’s no border wall and there’s no sea you have to get across. When you hear that number, you see that the number that came in 2015 was actually pretty small in comparison, and yet it’s churned up all these billions of euros to stop it.

I wonder, will it lead to a reckoning for the past? I suspect it won’t.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned is out now on Fourth Estate.

Follow Frances Leach on Twitter

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