“What does your phone mean to you?” asks Irish journalist Sally Hayden. For most of us in the West, it is a way to keep in touch, to entertain, connect and share. For those unlucky enough to be born in places blighted by war and oppression, it is also a “tiny window into the greater world”, one which exposes its deep injustice and inspires dreams of a different life. “We wanted,” the Eritrean refugee poet MJ Waliku Arsema writes, “to achieve things others only knew from a screen.”
For refugees on the epic journey in search of safety – “the road of death” one Eritrean called it; the “Temple Run” they say in Sierra Leone, after the mobile phone game’s exhortation to “use amazing powers to cheat death” – phones are lifelines. Because of her award-winning investigative reporting on Syrian refugees, one of those hidden arteries found its way to Hayden in her sublet room in London. “Sister Sally,” a man WhatsApped her in 2018 from a Libyan detention centre for refugees, “we need your help.”
“I had stumbled, inadvertently, on a human rights disaster of epic proportions,” Hayden remembers.
By then, tens of thousands of refugees had been drowning in the Mediterranean for years, turning the sea into a mass maritime graveyard, one celebrated by many in Europe. British newspapers and politicians called for “gunships” to target the “swarm” of “cockroaches”. Far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini demanded the closure of ports to rescue boats saying Europe wanted no more “slaves who rape, steal and deal”. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán decried the “migrant armies” and “invaders”.
Refugees from across Africa and the Middle East were bought and sold, exploited and abused, and now Europe paid to have them intercepted and detained
After the arrival of a million Syrian refugees in 2015, Europe offered Turkey billions of euro to close the continent’s Bosphorous and Aegean gates. The “success” of that policy was then applied to the Mediterranean, pouring hundreds of millions of euro into Libya, where corrupt officials, militias and human traffickers controlled a “21st century slave trade”. Refugees from across Africa and the Middle East were bought and sold, exploited and abused, and now Europe paid to have them “intercepted” and “detained”.
After those first messages, Hayden spent years messaging every day with detained refugees in Libya, chronicling the abuses they faced there. The detention centres were, Pope Francis has said, like concentration camps, and Hayden shows that “each had its own definition of hell”. Despite death threats that made it impossible for her to report from Libya itself, Hayden travelled across East, West and North Africa, to boats on the Mediterranean, and to the capitals of Europe to tell the stories of the desperate people whose invisible networks now included her own phone.
Through its screen she saw horrors that Europe was intent on ignoring, disappearing photos and videos from disappearing people. “What is it like,” she reflects, “to watch innocent people being shot through Facebook Messenger?” Jarring messages interject in Hayden’s text the way they must have flashed as notifications on her phone. “They are beating and shooting us. There’s no food, no water. The children are crying, starving. Please.”
Rape and torture were endemic, the details so appalling that Hayden wonders how we can even “grapple with the horror of it”. Messages spoke of the trauma of watching family members raped, of women watching their husbands murdered; one man counted 29 people he had seen die. “Hell is better.” Alongside drowning and murder, suicide became common. “Please help,” came one message, “today one person self dead by petrol because hopeless from UNHCR.” Twenty-eight year-old Abulaziz from Somalia had burned himself to death.
The UN agencies had allowed themselves to be used by the EU, effectively whitewashing a brutal system of violence and torture
Little official help came. “I used to be afraid of smugglers in Libya,” said one refugee; “now I’m afraid of organisations that claim humanity.” Hayden’s meticulous and humane reporting is particularly scathing of the actions of the UNHCR and its UN partner, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). She reveals deep corruption, arrogance and inhumanity.
The UNHCR office in Tunis called Hayden “the enemy” for her reporting; the IOM deemed reports of deaths in Libyan detention “fake news”. Dozens of aid workers in Libya told her the UN agencies had allowed themselves “to be used by the EU, effectively whitewashing a brutal system of violence and torture”.
That system was well known in Europe. “They knew exactly what their policies were funding,” says an aid worker of European politicians who visited Libya. Subsequent international investigations have confirmed what was reported, denied and ignored. The Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, accuses Europe of “slavery and genocide” in its racist treatment of refugees: “We will not be able to say to our grandson or granddaughter,” he told Hayden, “that we did not know.” This is a book of evidence, an indictment of a guilty continent. It will make you feel sick, and it should.
Despite her tireless courage, Hayden does not preach, and is deeply self-reflective about her reporting. She hates the “hubris” of “feeling that you are important simply because you are aware of what is happening”. She gives voice to individuals without ever losing sight of the larger picture. People ask her how she can deal with such traumatic work and she “can’t help feeling that this question is another way for people to avoid engaging with the bigger issues”.
“How often have you clicked away?” Hayden asks, “Closed the tab; switched the channel?” The most difficult thing, a guide at the Auschwitz memorial once told her, is not seeing cruelty, but making sure you don’t become immune to it. Now over the same soil on which that genocide happened, millions of Ukrainian refugees flee a war in which we all watch murder on Messenger.
Further south, refugees from other wars and famines still arrive in Libya at the gates of Fortress Europe, where thousands remain in detention. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil,” wrote one detained Eritrean refugee, “but by those who watch them without doing anything.”
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer, and host of the Ireland’s Edge podcast