In February 2020, Fuad Bedru spotted someone he recognised in the street. Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, a people smuggler originally from Eritrea, was on an international wanted list, accused of holding thousands of people from various African countries captive in a ‘safe house’ in Libya, where they were starved, beaten and raped while Kidane and his fellow smugglers extorted money from their relatives. Fuad’s attempt to reach Europe had failed and he ended up back where he started, in Ethiopia. Recognising Kidane in Addis Ababa, he found a police patrol and told the officers that ‘the person standing by the electronics stall was one of the world’s most wanted human smugglers.’ Kidane offered the police officers a bribe, but they arrested him. He went on trial in October 2020.
When European politicians introduce tougher border restrictions, they claim to be trying to curb people smuggling. ‘This deal strikes a major blow to the evil people smugglers,’ Priti Patel said in April, announcing the UK government’s plan to deport refugees to Rwanda. ‘We have to break the cruel business model of smugglers,’ Ursula Von der Leyen said on becoming president of the European Commission in 2019, shortly before giving her migration chief a new title, ‘commissioner for protecting the European way of life’. Yet when Kidane’s trial brought an opportunity to confront the reality of smuggling, few seemed to care. Sally Hayden, an Irish freelance journalist who reported on the trial, was shocked to discover that she and her Ethiopian translator were the only independent observers in the courtroom. ‘When two of the most significant smugglers in North Africa were apprehended, through the bravery of a victim,’ she writes in My Fourth Time We Drowned, ‘we were left with this: a quiet courtroom and a handful of witnesses.’ A few months later, Kidane escaped from custody by climbing through a bathroom window in the court complex.
Few events this century have received more sustained press coverage than the migration ‘crisis’ of 2015, when the number of people crossing the Mediterranean along two main routes – from North Africa to Italy and from Turkey to Greece – rose dramatically. Any increase in the number of migrants arriving is still exhaustively reported on: British TV crews have sailed alongside boats crossing the Channel, quizzing refugees even as air leaks from their inflatable dinghies. This coverage is shaped by the social biases of the people who make and consume the news, the structural dynamics of journalism and the political priorities of the countries where major media outlets are based. The racist assumptions of some of the reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with some commentators remarking on the tragedy of war affecting people who look white and Western, have been widely noted. But media attention can be fickle. Several million Ukrainians were displaced in the previous stage of the war, between 2014 and 2022, yet this rarely made the headlines.
It’s helpful to pay attention to where the silence falls, because it shows you the way power operates. Libya is a particularly revealing example. There’s a long history of Europe trying to use the country as an outsourced border cop: Gaddafi manipulated the issue, threatening to ‘turn Europe black’ by allowing migrants to cross the Mediterranean unless the EU sent him billions of euros. After he was overthrown with Nato’s backing, Libya descended into civil war and a migration route expanded; for the last few years Europe has been desperate to shut it down. The EU border agency, Frontex, decided in 2017 to halt rescue operations off the Libyan coast. Instead, aerial surveillance patrols give Libya’s coastguard the co-ordinates of boats in distress. The EU’s human rights rules forbid European authorities from returning refugees directly to unsafe countries, but this workaround has enabled more than 100,000 people to be sent back to Libya over the last five years. The use of such methods means that migration across the Mediterranean from North Africa is no longer considered a crisis for Europe – so it has all but disappeared from the news.
Information still seeps out. In August 2018 Hayden was at home ‘scrolling through Netflix’ when she received a message on Facebook: ‘Hi sister Sally, we need your help.’ The sender explained that he was one of a group of Eritrean refugees locked up in a government-run detention centre in Tripoli. Fighting in Libya’s civil war had intensified and the guards had fled, leaving the detainees without food. The sender – who said that he was writing on behalf of hundreds of people, all crowded around a single smartphone – described the ‘sadistic’ treatment inmates had received at the hands of the Libyan guards. Now, with fighting drawing closer, the refugees believed they were in even more danger. ‘Feeling unmoored and useless,’ Hayden writes, ‘I began to post screenshots of my messages with the refugees on Twitter, where they were quickly shared, garnering tens of thousands of views, and then hundreds of thousands.’ After evacuation buses arranged by the UNHCR finally arrived at the detention centre, Hayden followed the refugees’ progress on Google Maps via the GPS tracker on the sender’s phone. She sent messages updating them on their location, like a tour guide: ‘On your left, you will see the University of Tripoli.’
Over the weeks that followed, Hayden started to get messages from other refugees in Libya. She was invited into news studios to discuss the story, and began to collect information on the network of smugglers’ compounds and government-run detention centres that span the country. The centres are part of the official effort to combat people smuggling, but from the refugees’ perspective there is little to distinguish them from the smugglers’ compounds. At the safe house used by Kidane and his accomplices, hundreds of people were crowded into one room, with only three toilets. ‘I bought you,’ a guard told one of the inmates. At a government-run centre in Zintan, in north-west Libya, people live among piles of rubbish crawling with maggots; Hayden talked to a Gambian woman who had watched her six-year-old son die there from untreated appendicitis. At Souq al Khamis, where migrants intercepted at sea are dropped off by the Libyan coastguard, the guards threaten inmates with violence and execution, then sell them back to the smugglers. Hayden had ‘stumbled on a human rights disaster of epic proportions’.
‘Stumbled’ is an appropriate choice of word. Hayden’s method of exposing this open secret is the slow, painstaking accumulation of detail. She ignored a literary agent’s suggestion that she focus on one or two of the detention centres or create composite characters in order to make the book accessible. Instead, in a roughly chronological narrative, she lets readers see how she found out about what was happening. Her account is interspersed with snatches of messages – ‘breaking news dear’, one correspondent writes each time he contacts her – and grainy screenshots of images sent over WhatsApp. Hayden also explains how she worked to verify the information she received, and check it against official accounts.
The result is a mass of fragmented information – echoing the experience of refugees in Libya, who struggle to find anything out. The huge power imbalance between the people who have created this situation and those who have to survive it isn’t just a question of physical freedom, but of access to information and means of communication. When Hayden asked a Frontex spokesperson what happened to refugees when they were taken back to Libya, she was told: ‘That’s outside our mandate.’ An EU spokesperson’s assurance that ‘the EU’s priority in our work in Libya when it comes to migration has always been and will continue to be saving lives’ is followed by a message from a refugee who was placed in a windowless torture chamber as punishment for protesting against his treatment. ‘I am in the hell … my friends all in the dark room. Underground. Yes, is terrible.’
The humanitarian organisations that exist to protect refugees seem to be the most compromised. The UN’s refugee and migration agencies (the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration) have some staff in Libya, but only a few thousand people have been evacuated from the country, and senior officials are reluctant to criticise European policy in public. Whistleblowers from the agencies told Hayden they felt they were being used to sanitise European policy. Hayden contrasts the agencies’ slick PR – a 57-page UNHCR ‘brand book’ contains guidelines for photography and social media – with the reality on the ground. ‘Discrepancies could be blatant,’ she writes, ‘as simple as the difference between UN social media posts showing distributions of blankets, compared to photos taken by detainees later that day, in which guards could be seen removing the stacks of blankets again, putting them on the back of vehicles and driving away.’ When refugees confronted UNHCR officials on Twitter about their living conditions, they were blocked. One official interviewed by Hayden compared their complaints to children having a tantrum.
It’s easy to forget that while some people saw the events of 2015 as a crisis, others saw it as a hopeful, even revolutionary moment. ‘Screens around the world showed the masses walking through open borders, proof of the impossible, a clarion call announcing universal freedom of movement,’ Matthieu Aikins, a Canadian-American journalist who began reporting from Afghanistan in 2008, writes in The Naked Don’t Fear the Water. ‘Something miraculous was happening … a violation of a fundamental law: under the weight of the people, the border had opened.’ Aikins’s book describes his attempts to travel along the overland migration route from Afghanistan to Europe in 2015 and 2016, disguised as a refugee. He got the idea when his Afghan friend Omar, a fixer and translator for journalists and Western troops, told Aikins he was planning to pay smugglers to take him to Europe. Aikins, who is fluent in Dari, decided to pass as an Afghan so that he could ‘go with him and write about it … This way, I could see the refugee underground from the inside.’
Aikins’s journey – along the second of the two main refugee routes into Europe, through Turkey – was marked by false starts. He and Omar travelled to Afghanistan’s western borders, intending to pay smugglers to take them into Iran, but turned back when they were told they would have to travel via Pakistan, whose border police are notorious for beating and robbing Afghan refugees. Omar then decided to travel through Iran on his own; Aikins flew to Istanbul to meet him further along the route, but was deported to Italy because, in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish authorities were suspicious of journalists. He smuggled himself back into Turkey across the Bulgarian border (a reverse refugee journey), before he and Omar took a smuggler boat across the Aegean to Greece.
Like Hayden, Aikins describes a power imbalance that is as much about people’s right to be seen and heard as their right to move. Under the American-led occupation, a white surveillance blimp hovered above Kabul: Afghanistan was ‘a fish bowl where the US government accumulated the trivia of our lives’, collecting biometric data on Afghans and logging ‘every cellphone call and message, each late-night sext’. Official refugee resettlement programmes – often held up by Western politicians as the alternative to smuggler routes – only take ‘measured sips’ from the world’s displaced populations. To be considered for resettlement you’re judged on what Aikins’s Afghan friends call your ‘story’ (your asylum claim), and must make the details of your life sound heart-rending. (At one point, Omar’s sister was told that if she wanted to be resettled in Canada she should claim to be gay.) The other option, if you can afford it, is the smuggler’s road.
The opening of Aikins’s book tries to establish dramatic tension: Omar wants to reach Europe so he can be reunited with Laila, his secret girlfriend. But the more interesting relationship is between Omar and Aikins, two men in their twenties who have grown up at opposite ends of the War on Terror. This provides a convenient way of retelling Afghanistan’s recent history, but it also allows Aikins to reflect on the distance that history has placed between them, and on the ethics of his role as a journalist. At one point, Omar loses hope of ever seeing Laila again and retreats to his bed. ‘Each time I came in and saw Omar lying there, his face in Facebook, I felt a prick of annoyance,’ Aikins admits. ‘What kind of a protagonist was he?’
Aikins’s approach is often very effective. He conveys the physical experience of using dangerous migration routes – crossing the Aegean in an inflatable boat, he was squashed up against a six-year-old Syrian (‘the girl’s skull was warm on my palm, and I realised that she’d fallen asleep’) – and the hardship caused by restrictions on movement. On arriving in Lesbos, he and Omar were sent to the notorious Moria camp, a holding pen for refugees hurriedly set up in response to the 2015 crisis, where flu, scabies, chickenpox and skin infections were rife. As the story progresses, however, the book’s various elements start to clash. Describing his stay in Moria, which was destroyed by a fire in 2020, Aikins quotes from The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist.’ But the desire to bear witness – which Hayden takes to an almost painful extreme – is blunted by Aikins’s introspection. At the end of the book, he fantasises about sticking with his refugee alter ego and applying for asylum in Europe. ‘In truth,’ he concludes, ‘we can’t leave ourselves behind. We only get one story, which we narrate looking backward. Our choices and chance encounters, the trembling of another’s hand, all matter because of where they lead us.’ There’s an unresolved tension here. Is Aikins trying to tell us that there’s something profound, universal and, perhaps, inevitable about the experience of displacement? Or is he describing a series of injustices, enacted by specific systems and individuals, which we can try to address?
Both books are at their strongest when they present themselves as a collaboration between journalist and subject. Aikins tries to experience, as far as he can, what Omar and others experience on the route from Afghanistan to Europe. Hayden, by contrast, observes from a distance: Libya was too dangerous for her to visit at the time she was writing her book. When she became particularly disheartened, one of her correspondents from Libya, an Eritrean called Samuel, decided she needed a boost. ‘All Eritreans should know about the famous, smart and kind journalist, Sally Hayden,’ he wrote on Facebook. ‘We have to share and like for the motivation and keep her going … THANKS!!!’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.