In her new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, journalist Sally Hayden draws on extensive interviews with refugees and migrants who set out to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe but were pushed into Libyan detention centers. In this excerpt, Hayden discusses the ethics of reporting on a humanitarian crisis and argues that wealthier countries should respond with greater compassion to migration from Africa and the Middle East.
When I was a student, I visited the site of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Walking between the piles of combs, shoes, hair, and other reminders of those who had been brutally killed, I asked the guide if he found it difficult coming face to face with the cruelty of humans day after day. The difficult thing is not seeing evidence of suffering, he responded. It’s making sure you don’t become immune to it.
In Europe, we hear constant reports of drownings in the Mediterranean, of torture and abuse along the rich world’s borders. How often have you clicked away, closed the tab, switched the channel? How immune have we all grown to the destruction of life and the ongoing failure of humanity when it comes to responding to it?
I think I always wanted to be a journalist. Growing up, I was interested in stories of countries far away. Historically, the Irish are emigrants, and when I graduated, in 2013, I became one, too. The global economic downturn hit Ireland badly, and I moved to London—which to me seemed like an alien city in an unknown country—in the hopes of finding work.
At the time, I did not understand that there were classifications of foreigners. There were economic migrants (like me), refugees, asylum seekers, and “expats” (a word I heard living in various African countries, where the term invariably refers to white people). The difference is usually in the level of unearned privilege. I cannot relate to what it is like to emigrate on top of extreme, communal trauma, or how it feels to leave the place your family has always lived in, at a moment’s notice, knowing you may never return.
I began earnestly reporting on migration and refugee issues in 2015, the year more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. My then-editor in London suggested I travel to Calais, northern France, after we heard U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron saying “swarms” of migrants were gathering there, “seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain.” Who were these people, we wondered aloud. When I got to Calais, I found men, women, and children who had already made incomprehensible sacrifices and had understandable reasons for needing to continue their journeys. One Syrian, whose image sticks with me, had a terminal illness. His relatives were in Manchester, and he knew he would need the daily care they could provide for him. He was not traveling for social security benefits, he was traveling to reach the community he needed so desperately—those who could keep him from being a “burden” on the state.
Forced migration is extremely lonely. Families can be separated by accident, or split deliberately after doing a risk-and-cost analysis. They want to increase their chances of collectively reaching a safe place, but are hindered by what they can afford and which legal chances of reunification may be open to them afterward. Those who travel alone need to constantly make hard decisions while knowing that, in the end, everything in this world comes down to luck and money. They travel under extreme pressure, aware that their success could reset the course of their families’ lives, and failure could destroy them.
The privilege of having a certain passport means that I travel with a freedom most people I interview cannot comprehend. When I first started writing this book, I had just moved from the U.K. to Uganda. Even traveling around Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, a European often has more ease of access than someone from the region. I have been able to visit families who were torn apart by war or persecution, spending time in different countries with relatives who may not have seen each other in person for years. I am always struck by their graciousness. There was the mother who made me a feast of fattoush and warak enab in Damascus while we chatted to her son in London on Skype; the brother of an Eritrean man in a Libyan detention center who bought me a beer in Kampala; the sisters in Addis Ababa who handed over sweets and gifts. I was amazed by the kindness and warmth they showed when I know they would have given anything to have their relative in the room instead.
There has also been resentment. As months stretched into years, some of the people sending me evidence from Libyan detention centers rightly noted that I was receiving awards, or being invited to speak at conferences, or accruing other honors. As my career progressed, they were stuck in the same place getting little benefit. That is something I have struggled with, too. I have written many articles but also helped detained refugees publish their own. I hope many more will have the opportunity to tell their stories in the coming years.
On occasion, I have been uncomfortable with the relationship between journalists and people in need. Back in 2015, after a multi-hour stakeout on a bridge in Calais, a British photographer asked me to throw sweets at refugees hiding on the train tracks below, hoping they would rush out so he could get a photo of them (I refused). During the same conversation, another man described being one of the first foreign journalists in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. I remember recoiling as he told me how he “feasted” on the story.
I remember reading The Bang-Bang Club, which describes the ethical problems faced by photojournalists during South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the fate of Kevin Carter, who killed himself shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for a photo he took of a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. Journalists can be vultures. I truly believe in my profession and in the importance of factual information being made public, but I still constantly second-guess myself. I try to tread carefully and be respectful to those I speak to, but there is a power imbalance there, too.
There were stories I wanted to include in this book but was not able to, and there were people never mentioned who deserve to be remembered. In some cases, they were left out at the request of family members who are hiding the truth from other relatives. Across East and West Africa, there are mothers and fathers who will never know the babies they birthed, raised, and loved have died; grandparents being falsely reassured that their grandchildren are living a fulfilling and happy life far away, and are simply too busy to call.
Even when interviewees were willing, speaking to people who have been through such a harrowing process is complicated. There are some things they feel unable to tell you because they do not want to relive them. There are some things they do not want to tell you because they feel shame about them. And there are some things they did not understand themselves, at the time or even years afterward.
On my side, there was pressure to make the reporting digestible for a Western reader with a short attention span. When I first started talking to literary agents, their responses were disheartening. They either said I needed to write a polemic, declaring myself in favor of open borders in the first few paragraphs, or they wanted me to fictionalize what had happened to make it easier to follow. One agent told me there was no “killer narrative,” and this book could never compete with Netflix and the bestselling novel-turned-film Gone Girl, while suggesting I create a “composite character” and focus only on one, unnamed, detention center in Libya, or an audience would be unwilling to read it. I wanted to write a work of journalism, making sure that this period of time, and this episode of European shame, was documented.
One of the greatest challenges to humanity in the 21st century will be how it deals with migration. Much of that is less about capacity and more about human greed. As it stands, developing countries shelter around 87% of the world’s refugees. More than half a century after most African countries gained independence, the world is still divided, and the specter of colonialism lives on. The daily scramble to get food by people in large portions of the world contrasts grotesquely with the living standards in others.
Why is it that Europeans care so little when black children die in the Mediterranean Sea? How much suffering must a human go through to be seen as equal? While European history texts gloss over the legacy of colonialism, many Africans grow up hearing how their former colonizers have stolen their wealth.
In the 20th century, the world’s population ballooned from 1.6 billion to 6 billion—the biggest increase in known history. Western countries are now aging as residents have fewer children. This has led to a slew of dramatic media coverage, like a 2021 New York Times article that predicted maternity wards shutting down, universities unable to find students, and “first-birthday parties [becoming] a rarer sight than funerals.” The population of Africa is expected to double by 2050. Yet rich-world discussions around fertility rates usually treat Africa as a side note, even suggesting that Western governments should be introducing incentives for childbearing, rather than re-examining migration policies to give more young Africans access to the opportunities they crave.
Climate change will also push people to migrate. By 2070, if populations stay where they are currently, between 1 and 3 billion people could be living outside the temperatures humanity is used to, according to a 2020 study by an international team of scientists. One-third of the planet would have a mean annual temperature of more than 84 degrees Fahrenheit, a number currently found on less than 1% of land—mostly in the Sahara Desert. Hundreds of millions of people may start searching for a better place to live for that reason. Who could blame them?
Excerpted from My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Immigration Route by Sally Hayden (Melville House, 2022) with permission of the publisher.
Sally Hayden is a journalist focused on migration, conflict, and humanitarian crises. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Financial Times Magazine, VICE, and elsewhere, and been featured on CNN International and the BBC. In 2019, Hayden was named one of Forbes’s 30 Under 30 in Media in Europe, in part because of her work on refugee issues.