The Hellish Plight of African Migrants Trapped in Libya

Libya is a popular point from which Africa refugees and migrants set off for Europe. However, if caught, these migrants and refugees have been subject to indefinite detention in hellish conditions in Libya.

Journalist Sally Hayden first caught wind of this story when she unexpectedly received a Facebook message from an Eritrean migrant stranded in a Libyan jail. This led her on a reporting journey that resulted in her new book, My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.

We kick off discussing how it is that she first started receiving messages from migrants trapped in a Libyan prison before having a broader conversation about the lives she profiles and how the European Union is partly responsible for this human rights disaster.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

Why Are Migrants Trapped in a Libyan Detention Center?

Sally Hayden [00:02:21] So I had been reporting on migration for a few years before, but this was still pretty unexpected to me. I got a message on Facebook that said basically, ‘Hi, Sister Sally, we need your help; we’re trapped in a Libyan prison. If you have time, I’ll tell you all the story.’ So, I didn’t take it too seriously just because I was thinking if this person’s in a Libyan prison, why are they contacting me? How do they have my name and all of this? But I responded, of course, because as a journalist, that’s what you do. So, I said, ‘I can’t help, but I’m happy to talk to you about it.’ And this guy who was messaging me basically said that there were 500 of them — men, women, and children — who had been abandoned in what he called a prison. It was, it turned out, a migrant detention center in Tripoli and that conflict had broken out around them. And essentially that they were running out of food and water, and they were worried about that. They had been held in two separate areas, the men, and the women, but they had broken down the doors between them after they were effectively abandoned. And so, I was wondering, is this real? I think the first person I contacted was a Libyan journalist actually, I knew who was in Tripoli. And I said, is this true? Like has a conflict just broken out? And, you know, would there be refugees locked up in this area of Tripoli? And he said, ‘yes, a conflict did just break out and yes, there would be people locked up there.’ And so, from that point, I ‘went, okay, maybe this is real.’ So, I asked for whatever I could get to verify the story, things like selfies, GPS location, even numbers of this guy’s family members just to try and figure out was this real and I started contacting as well, just different NGOs, the U.N. asking first, is this real? Secondly, can you actually do anything about this? And yeah, that was how this story started. I mean, it’s crazy that I met you at the time because it was only a few weeks into me reporting on it and this is nearly now four years later. And yeah, it’s basically taken over my life for the last four years.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:55] Yeah. I mean, I remember you showing me those messages on I think it was WhatsApp that you were exchanging with that man inside that Libyan detention center. And it’s just like harrowing. It was really both like intense, like deeply disturbing on a human level and also it seemed like what could you as an individual — at that time we were in New York — do about the situation.

Sally Hayden [00:05:24] Yeah, exactly. For me, I’m a journalist, you know, all I can really do is report. But yeah, we were at the UN General Assembly, I remember, probably pissing off everyone else in the room because I was just asking every question about what was happening with these refugees in Libya but at that stage it had been a few weeks. So initially I had kind of thought that this was an isolated incident and it turned out that, no, there were actually detention centers all over Tripoli where more refugees were in a similar situation. So, it wasn’t just this one case. It was actually thousands of people who were in this situation. For me, it was shocking because I had heard about this before a bit, but I didn’t properly understand it. It was one year after the EU started supporting the Libyan Coast Guard so basically if refugees or migrants as well try and cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, they were then getting intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which is essentially a way to kind of circumnavigate international law because European vessels can’t return people to a place where their life is in danger, so they couldn’t return them to Libya. But if the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted boats, they can return them to Libya. So, you basically had thousands of people who were caught at sea. Now close to like 90,000. I mean, even closer to a 100,000. But you had at that stage, thousands of people who had been caught at sea and forced back to Libya and then they just get locked up indefinitely. They don’t have any legal recourse to get out of those detention centers. So then when something like a conflict breaks out, they’re just stuck. They’re just abandoned.

Where are the migrants who are stuck in Libyan Detention Centers from?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:20] And what did you learn about how the people with whom you were messaging in that detention center in Libya in 2018, how did they end up there?

Sally Hayden [00:07:34] Yes, that was exactly it. They had fled. A lot of them are Eritrean, so they fled the dictatorship there where I’m sure like pretty much all your listeners know, there is mandatory military service that can last pretty indefinitely. You know, the UN has called it slavery and people are fleeing that dictatorship. Or some of them were Somalis who had fled conflict or al-Shabab or some of them were from Darfur, Sudan, or South Sudan as well where there was conflict so there was a lot of people fleeing war and repression and dictatorships. Most of them had spent at least a year with smugglers because basically when you get to Libya, then you got held for ransom so even if you’ve negotiated one fee, your fee will be multiplied once you actually reach Libya, and you can be held and tortured, and that ransom is extracted from your family. So, by the time they actually reached the sea, that was at least one year into the journey generally. And then at that point they try and cross the sea to get to Italy or to Malta, and then the boats are getting intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. And that’s the point when they got pushed back and locked up in these detention centers again indefinitely. That was what they had been through. So, I didn’t understand that before either, that actually at this point they had already been on the road at least a year, some two years, some three years trying to seek safety.

What has happened to migrants who were and are trapped in Libyan Detention Centers?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:13] And after having made it all the way to Libya, having made it on a boat, they are intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which I take it is more like a sea faring militia that’s supported by the European Union, funded by the European Union to evade, as you said, laws that European Union countries abide by. And so, migrants are locked up in these detention centers indefinitely. The people that you are messaging with what happened to them?

Sally Hayden [00:09:52] So actually it’s strange because now it’s obviously four years on — some of them I’ve actually met in person; they have managed to make it to Europe and that was either through some of them on rescue ships. Eventually they managed to go to sea again and this time they did get rescued by independent European ships, or actually one guy even just sailed all the way to Malta, which sounded like a very long journey, or some of them were chosen for a UN resettlement evacuation and then resettlement program, which is a small percentage of people but still some people go through that and they’ve made it to Europe and then others are just still in Libya. Or I mean, it’s hard to say because there are people who have dropped out of contact with me, and I don’t know what happened to them. And of course, I hope that they didn’t die but that is also a possibility because I was in touch with a lot of people, and I have lost touch with quite a number of them. But yeah, it’s been nice to meet the ones that I actually got to meet in person. That was really lovely.

Do any of the trapped migrants in Libya make it to Europe?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:04] Well, to that end, can you tell the story of Caleb?

Sally Hayden [00:11:07] Yeah, sure. So, he is an Eritrean, but came of age in Ethiopia and he was a refugee there; he didn’t have the correct documents. He knew that his future was very limited and, you know, there’s all sorts of risks that you live when you live as a refugee in a different country, particularly Eritrea and Ethiopia. You know, sometimes the relationship is fraught, so you don’t necessarily feel like you’re on a secure footing even if you have got refugee status. So, for him, he then decided basically he was going to try and get to Europe like maybe that was the only way that he could have a good future. So, he set off on this journey, ended up in Libya, stayed with a smuggler. He went with one smuggler which is a terrible story; the smuggler effectively gambled them away. A lot of the smuggling routes, there’s like different levels to them. And so, you have the very top people who often aren’t even present in Libya, who have like people below them and people below them and people below them.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:23] Organized crime, basically.

Sally Hayden [00:12:24] Yeah, exactly. So, the top smuggler was in Dubai and what they were told was that he had actually gambled them away like a group of hundreds of them got gambled so he had to pay twice a ransom of like thousands of dollars so to the first smuggler and then again to who he was gamble to. Then he went to sea, was intercepted the first time, and managed to pay out of a detention center. When to sea again, got intercepted again, got locked up. And that was the point when I became in touch with him. And so, he was in that first detention center where they contacted me from.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:10] And what was his fate?

Sally Hayden [00:13:14] So he actually has made it to Europe. He’s in Luxembourg now. That took him, I think, almost a year from the time that they first contacted me. That was when I met him in person but at that point, that had been more than two years since he set off on the initial journey and he was taken through the evacuation scheme. So, he was actually evacuated to Italy and then he basically realized that in Italy there are so many refugees, and their prospects again are like very limited. And he did what a lot of people evacuated from Libya to Italy do, which is just went to a different country and claimed asylum there.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:03] And what was it like to meet him in person after having been in touch with him for so long?

Sally Hayden [00:14:08] It was very strange. I mean, I think the first time we talked was for like 10 hours or something like that. We just walked around and talked because even me at that stage, I’d been reporting on this for nearly a year. I was talking to refugees in Libyan detention centers every single day, particularly at night, because a lot of them were using hidden phones. So, I’d stay up late at night and be messaging them, you know, they’d be updating me on what had happened that day. And so, I had had this very strange year where I had never actually met — so I had met relatives of people in detention that I was in touch with, but I had never met someone themselves and so it was just me asking, is this real? Is this real? Like, tell me more about this. So yeah, for me even though you do your due diligence as a journalist, when you actually see someone in person, there’s still a part of you that’s going ‘can this really be true?’ And yeah, obviously it was.

Why does the European Union support the Libyan Coast Guard?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:12] So because of your reporting and reporting of other journalists as well — you were the first one I had ever seen on this story — has there been any change to the European Union’s policy of supporting the Libyan Coast Guard and intercepting mostly African migrants from reaching Europe and then detaining them indefinitely in these detention centers?

Sally Hayden [00:15:41] No, there hasn’t. I think I was very naive when I started reporting. I was thinking we just need to make people aware of this and it’s probably going to stop but I was thinking that they weren’t necessarily aware of the consequences, but actually, yeah, that hasn’t stopped. And there’s a lot of roundabout logic for that. I mean, when you hear EU officials talk about it first, they say they don’t support detention, they want the detention centers closed. Secondly, they’ll say that the support for the Coast Guard is part of tackling the business model of smugglers. And so, they say that this is an attempt at saving lives but what I realized quite quickly through my reporting is that there’s not actually — for example, I interviewed Frontex and the spokeswoman for Frontex told me it’s not their responsibility. Once people are intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, they don’t, for example, monitor how many people then die in Libya. So, you can say you’re saving lives because you’re not gathering the statistics that show you what people are going through after that point. And so, yeah, all these things are quite complex, but at the same stage like for me it’s at that point of interception that’s where I think that the EU is undeniably ethically culpable for what happens after that point. And so, I wrote the book I want I wanted to document what was happening from that point, and I became very aware that that wasn’t being properly recorded.

Is the number of migrants attempting to cross into Europe through the Mediterranean Sea increasing?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:18] And your book is just full of stories and anecdotes and personal accounts of people on that journey facing that really sort of harrowing experience of being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard on their way to Europe. But stepping back from the individual stories, what have the trends been in recent years or months? Are the number of attempted sea crossings by refugees and migrants relatively stable or increasing or decreasing?

Sally Hayden [00:17:52] I know the number of interceptions has hugely increased and I’m not sure of the total number of attempted crossings. I need to get the latest statistics, but I know that the number of interceptions — I mean, last year I think it was like 30,000 people so it’s going up very significantly basically. And it’s tricky because you have obviously waves of — you know, the way basically migration works is that when one route gets shut down, people will shift to another route. And so, there was a period of time where as many people weren’t coming to Libya, which actually meant that the people who were already there were being exploited a lot more because, for example, the smugglers weren’t making money off new arrivals, so they were just selling their ones who were already there between each other and exploiting them again and again and again. But now I think especially with the war in Tigray, you know, you have a series of crises that are going on across East Africa, in the Horn of Africa. And from what I’m hearing anyway, through refugees, the numbers that are arriving are going up and up again. And that makes sense, I think, because there’s so many people who have even fled into Sudan and there are people escaping from countries there who are just looking for any route to safety and so, of course, they’ll try what they can.

How are migrants from Ukraine and migrants from North Africa treated differently while migrating?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:29] So I’m interested in getting your perspective as a European journalist who’s covered migration and refugee issues primarily from the Middle East and North Africa and the Sahel region, East Africa, where you are now: you’re seeing this huge migration refugee crisis in Europe from Ukrainians who are fleeing, and it seems at least those European countries are doing the right thing. They’re opening their doors; civil society is kicking into gear to welcome them; governments are supporting them really seemingly robustly. What does that sort of juxtaposition of refugees being treated appropriately as they’re fleeing Ukraine, whereas refugees being locked up indefinitely in these hellish detention centers in Libya, what does that tell you about how we as an international community approach international migration and refugee issues?

Sally Hayden [00:20:34] Yeah, I think it’s been quite astounding, to be honest, quite shocking, I think for people who have been working on what’s happening on Europe’s borders and what’s happening to people trying to seek refuge or asylum. And, you know, of course it’s good. I think it’s very good that the Ukrainians are being welcomed and also, I would say like I hope it lasts as well because we have seen like different moments where it has seemed like there is going to be more empathetic policy or more empathetic welcomes, at least, for example, for Syrians after the death of Alan Kurdi and that hasn’t lasted. First of all, I do hope that it last for the Ukrainians. Secondly, I’ve spoken to Eritreans, for example, about this, like refugees who have gone through this very horrific journey and being locked in detention, one who almost died in a detention center from tuberculosis, and he was like, this is just racism. Like it’s very clearly racism. And I know, of course there are geopolitical reasons for welcoming Ukrainians as well, but I do think that, more than 3 million, I think now have crossed the border into the EU and if you think about 2015, it was 1.3 million people that claimed asylum and that was the year of the so-called European migrant crisis. And that was the year that shifted all this movement towards hardening Europe’s borders and that number now doesn’t seem so large when you think about it. I’ve spoken to other journalists who report on similar issues, and some of them said, actually, this makes them feel a glimmer of hope because it’s shown them that a more empathetic policy is possible. And I think also for a lot of Europeans, it’s made them realize that something like war can break out suddenly out of nowhere and can force you to escape your home and potentially has given them a bit more understanding for the fact that that is something that can happen. But yeah, I just hope that the same understanding is also given to Africans or to people fleeing other conflicts or dictatorships as well. I think the other thing I would say is I’ve heard the arguments, for example, one person was saying, ‘Ukraine, we have shared history with them in Europe.’ And I find that a bit ironic that a lot of the Africans who I’ve been interviewing are coming from what were former European colonies, like countries that were very badly exploited by Europe. And I so I think that also counts as shared history.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:29] Well. Sally, thank you so much for your time and for your tremendous book.

Sally Hayden [00:23:34] Yeah and thank you so much for having me as well. I really appreciate this.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:40] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Sally Hayden for her time and again, it’s an excellent book. I will post a link to it in the show notes of this episode. All right, thanks, I’ll see you next time. Bye!