As Europe Welcomes Ukrainian Refugees, It Leaves Other Migrants Caught “Between Two Deaths”

A new book describes the violence of EU-funded detention centers in Libya, exposing the racist double standard at the core of European border policy.

A displaced Ukrainian and child cross the border in Siret, Romania, March 2, 2022. Around 660,000 people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries in the past six days, putting the exodus on track to become Europe's largest refugee crisis this century, according to the United Nations. Photographer: Andrei Pungovschi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A displaced Ukrainian and child cross the border in Siret, Romania, on March 2, 2022. Photo: Andrei Pungovschi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last Monday, the European Union’s commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, visited a border crossing and refugee camp in the Romanian town of Siret, as thousands of Ukrainians arrived fleeing war and seeking asylum. Speaking to the press, Johansson praised the “heartwarming” cooperation and solidarity of authorities and volunteers. Europe, she said, was united “in a way we have never seen before.” On Sunday, Johansson had announced plans to grant temporary protection to all Ukrainian refugees, and by Thursday, the EU had unanimously agreed to fast-track residency permits for everyone fleeing the war. The commissioner was not naive or sanguine about the situation: “We need to prepare for millions,” she said.

Johansson’s statements came amid an outpouring of international support for Ukrainian refugees, now numbering over 1.7 million, as politicians, journalists, and commentators across the Western world articulated a shared sense of empathy and solidarity with the victims of Russian military aggression. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Biden administration — a government that in less than two years has carried out over 1 million expulsions of Latin American and Caribbean migrants, without giving them the chance to request asylum — “is certainly prepared” to take in Ukrainian refugees. On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security promised Temporary Protected Status to all Ukrainians currently present in the United States, a designation yet to be extended to Afghans, among others whose home countries the U.S. played a direct role in destabilizing. European states made even greater and more concrete commitments, expressed with an air of pride and patriotic duty, as if opening borders to those in need was simply a time-honored European tradition, taken for granted as the right thing to do.

The EU’s commendable displays of sympathy and hospitality toward Ukraine’s mostly white, mostly Christian refugees stand in violent contrast to its policies of deterrence, detention, and state-sanctioned death targeting African and Middle Eastern asylum-seekers by the millions. “We are wondering,” Ahmad al-Hariri, who fled the war in Syria 10 years ago and has been trying to reach Europe ever since, told Reuters, “why were Ukrainians welcome in all countries while we, Syrian refugees, are still in tents and remain under the snow, facing death, and no one is looking to us?” The contrast, to put it crudely, is as clear as black and white: Even within Ukraine’s refugee population, African exchange students and other nonwhite residents have faced racist violence and segregation as they attempt to leave the country, with many reporting being blocked from crossing borders while their white peers are welcomed with open arms.

According to estimates from the United Nations, there are more than 82 million people forcibly displaced by violence and persecution and over 280 million migrants worldwide (not counting the 780 million people displaced within their own countries). These numbers will continue to grow, as the climate crisis makes large parts of the planet uninhabitable, displacing an estimated 1.2 billion people by 2050. The main destinations for international migrants and asylum-seekers have long been the United States and Europe. The EU’s response to the arrival of refugees from the former European colonies of Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others has been a ruthless campaign of militarization and deterrence. It has included the construction of over 1,000 miles of walls and high-tech fencing, along with the rapid expansion of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, or Frontex, whose budget has ballooned from 118 million euros in 2018 to a proposed 754 million euros in 2022.

These deaths, it bears repeating, are the result of policies created by the same governments now welcoming millions of Ukrainians without hesitation.

Like the United States, Europe increasingly outsources its border enforcement to other countries, through policies that seek to prevent migration and to detain and kill people before they even reach the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Once at sea, migrants face the likelihood of death: Since 2014, more than 45,000 people have died or disappeared while attempting the crossing. Many spend years in detention centers, clandestine prisons, and in conditions of forced labor before ever stepping foot on a boat. Meanwhile, the number of people who perish in the desert before even reaching the sea, or who die in captivity after being repelled by EU deterrence, remains largely unknown, since no government or organization is keeping track. The International Organization for Migration, an agency of the United Nations, estimates that deaths in the Sahara Desert are “at least double” those in the Mediterranean, but no one actually knows. These deaths, it bears repeating, are the result of policies created by the same governments now welcoming millions of Ukrainians without hesitation.

There is perhaps no better testament to the racist double standard at the core of European border policy than the accounts of refugees and migrants collected in a new book by journalist Sally Hayden, “My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.” In 2018, Hayden, who covers migration, conflict, and humanitarian crises and is the Africa correspondent for the Irish Times, began receiving messages online from refugees held in detention centers in Libya. The people messaging her, she soon discovered, had found themselves stuck in an endless back-and-forth between detention on land and interception at sea — a deadly game of snakes and ladders in which, as anti-border scholar and organizer Harsha Walia describes it, there are “few ladders and many snakes.” They were trapped, as one Kurdish migrant described his situation to the BBC, “between two deaths.”


The book cover for Sally Hayden’s “My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.”

Image: Courtesy of Melville House Books

“There’s no food, no water. The children are crying… Tell them the people are dying here.” Soon Hayden was receiving regular updates from people inside nearly a dozen different migrant detention centers in Libya, through Facebook and WhatsApp messages drafted and sent using contraband phones, often with groups of tens or even hundreds of people crowding around a single device to “carefully [deliberate] how best to describe their situation.” “My Fourth Time, We Drowned” is a sweeping and disturbing investigation based on these conversations, along with interviews with refugees, U.N. and EU officials, human rights lawyers, and others. The stories in the book paint an intimate and excruciatingly detailed portrait of what journalist Ian Urbina has called Europe’s “shadow immigration system,” in which a “network of profit-making prisons” subject thousands to conditions of unspeakable terror and abuse.

“I wanted to document the consequences of European migration policies beginning from the point at which Europe becomes ethically culpable: when refugees are forcibly turned away,” Hayden writes. In Europe, states are prohibited by international law from forcing people back to danger, so they rely on proxy forces to do their dirty work, most notably in Libya, a country that has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and thus has no obligation to protect refugees.

Since 2017, the Libyan “coast guard” — less an official government agency and more an affiliation of militia members, many of whom are themselves involved in human trafficking — has become an integral part of the EU’s intricate and ever-expanding architecture of migrant deterrence. This violent maritime border patrol receives funding, support, and direct strategic cooperation from the European Union and some of its member states. Often operating on aerial surveillance intelligence provided by Frontex, the Libyan coast guard intercepts, or “rescues,” migrants and returns them to Libya. Those who are not immediately handed over to smugglers or disappeared into the country’s network of secret prisons and slave markets are sent to one of dozens of official detention centers run by the EU-funded Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, an agency of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord that, like the coast guard, is also controlled by militias and is notorious for torturing, abusing, and killing migrants.

“I wanted to document the consequences of European migration policies beginning from the point at which Europe becomes ethically culpable: when refugees are forcibly turned away.”

Compare Europe’s welcoming attitude toward white Ukrainians with the experience, for example, of Fatima Ausman Darboe, one of the people Hayden interviews in the book. Fatima escaped death squads and dictatorship in her home country of Gambia, a small West African nation bounded by Senegal. She had been living in Libya with her family when her husband developed a heart condition that forced them to risk crossing the sea to seek medical care in Europe. Fatima, pregnant with her fourth child, was intercepted at sea along with her husband and their three children, then transferred to Zintan, a former agricultural warehouse converted into a prison for migrants. Until it closed in 2020, Zintan was considered one of the country’s worst detention facilities — a place refugees called “Guantánamo.”

Over the course of several days in October 2018, Fatima watched helplessly as her 6-year-old son, Abdou Aziz, died of appendicitis. Hayden describes how Fatima pleaded with the guards for help as her son’s stomach swelled, as he writhed in pain. Just weeks after the boy was buried, Fatima’s husband died from a stroke. She gave birth to her fourth child in detention. Like Fatima, most of the more than 12,000 people currently held in official detention in Libya were sent there after being “rescued” at sea by the Libyan coast guard.

“The biggest danger to refugees locked up in Zintan,” Hayden writes, “was not abuse or torture, it was being forgotten.” Detainees messaged her from inside:

Is it true the EU rescued or saved our life? They are just sentencing us to death… It is better to die than to stay here.

We lose our hope. A lot of us have developed mental disorders because we have been detained here for one year and six months in this terrible condition.

We are around 620 Eritreans refugees detained in one hall. A lot of people are suffering from TB, hungry and dying…

The International Medical Corps was supposed to be providing aid and medical care in Zintan, with funding from the U.N. Refugee Agency, or UNHCR; the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a multibillion-euro pool of money aimed at stopping migration to Europe; and the British and German governments. But the organization was for the most part nowhere to be found. “In every two weeks one person is dead,” one detained migrant messaged Hayden. At the time, the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration dismissed reports of deaths in Zintan as “fake news” and vilified individuals who requested evacuation and resettlement as “rioters.” When Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, finally gained access to the facility in May 2019, the aid organization found people in need of immediate medical attention, surviving in conditions that one worker described as “beyond words.” At least 22 people had died, and the International Medical Corps would later estimate that roughly 80 percent of detainees had untreated tuberculosis.

The situation in Zintan was extreme but in many ways typical. Much of Hayden’s book is devoted to documenting the corruption, waste, negligence, and often patronizing attitudes of the major U.N. agencies and nongovernmental aid organizations operating in Libya (with the notable exception of MSF, which Hayden describes as “often the only big organization willing to speak out in a meaningful way.”). The UNHCR, which provides lifesaving aid to refugees in Libya and has facilitated the evacuation of thousands, has also faced fierce protests and accusations of complicity in human rights abuses from the very people the agency prides itself in assisting, including, for example, the deliberate starvation of refugees in their care.

In this and other ways, Hayden consistently writes from a position of solidarity with the people who are her subjects. She quotes them directly and at length, centers their perspectives and acts of bravery, and joins them in placing blame on the governments and organizations that deserve it. She reflects candidly on her own feelings of guilt and discomfort as a journalist, receiving awards for her reporting and watching her career advance while the people whose stories she tells continue to languish in detention, their situations largely unchanged. “I hate the hubris that can accompany this work,” she writes, “the feeling that you are important simply because you are aware of what is happening.”

Her humility and transparency lend Hayden’s reporting a degree of empathy often missing in media representations of Black and brown migrants, which tend to portray human beings as undifferentiated, illegal, and even dangerous masses — “floods,” “waves,” and all other manner of dehumanizing and waterlogged metaphors. At the same time, Hayden gracefully avoids the inverse and perhaps equally popular tendency: to humanize individual victims without attesting to the structures that victimize them.

Migrants hold placards during United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (unseen) visit to Ain Zara detention centre for migrants in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 4, 2019. -  (Photo by Mahmud TURKIA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Migrants hold placards during United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s visit to Ain Zara detention center for migrants in Tripoli on April 4, 2019.

Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

There are 27 official detention centers still operating in Libya, and Europe continues to collaborate with the coast guard to force people back into the hands of militias and smugglers. Earlier this year, on January 10, Libyan security forces attacked over 600 refugees on the streets of Tripoli, burned down their tent encampment, and forcibly transferred them to what many there call “the concentration camps of Ain Zara” — a detention center on the southern outskirts of the city. The attack came after an even larger crackdown in October that left hundreds injured and more than 5,000 detained.

Describing Libya’s detention centers as concentration camps may seem like crude hyperbole until you listen to the stories from the people being held there. They are starved, tortured, raped, and forced to work as slaves. In Ain Zara, Hayden describes how on “some mornings, around 3:00 a.m., the armed Libyan guards would call hundreds of detainees out to be ‘counted,’ sadistically making them stand in the cold for hours” — a practice reminiscent of Appellplatz, the early morning roll calls administered by Nazi guards in the concentration camps.

In October 2021, a fact-finding mission commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council found that patterns of routine violence and abuse in Libyan detention centers “form part of a systematic and widespread attack directed at this population, in furtherance of a State policy” and that those acts “may amount to crimes against humanity.” As human rights lawyers Omer Shatz and Juan Branco, whom Hayden interviews in the book, argued in a petition to the International Criminal Court, the mass drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean and Europe’s “policy of forced transfer,” which subcontracts maritime border enforcement to the Libyan coast guard, amount to “atrocities committed during peacetime” and possibly “genocide.”

Europe’s welcoming response to Ukrainians must be a model for future responses to displacement and migration.

Europe’s crimes against humanity in Libya are one exceptionally horrific expression of a system of increasingly brutal and normalized global apartheid — a “chasm,” as Hayden calls it, that separates “the obliviously privileged and the set-upon.” As more people are displaced by war, the climate crisis, and capitalist dispossession and “development,” the countries responsible will face more people seeking safety and survival at their gates and breaching through their walls and fences. Rather than serving to accentuate or reinforce the racist logic of borders, Europe’s welcoming response to Ukrainians must be a model for future responses to displacement and migration. The events of the last few days show that borders can open if we want them to, and that the invocation of a migrant or refugee “crisis” is merely a rhetorical weapon used to spread hate and fear, not a neutral description of outside forces and events.

Last week, I asked Hayden what she thought about the welcoming attitude of European governments toward Ukrainians fleeing the war. “I think,” she said, that “watching what has happened in Ukraine has made much of the European public realize that war can begin suddenly, upending lives and compelling desperate people to run to safety. I hope it will also lead to greater empathy towards refugees who aren’t mostly white, or even Christian, who are fleeing situations that may not get the same international coverage but are also horrific. The reaction towards Ukrainian refugees has shown us that a more empathetic policy is possible.”

Correction: March 10, 2022
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Fatima Ausman Darboe’s children. 

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