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How the UN inflames the so-called migrant crisis

My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden. Melville House, 400 pages.

A scene:

We will keep things vague to be polite. All quotes are general recollections that convey the spirit of the conversation.

I am at a party on the East Coast of the United States with (mostly) white Americans. Someone asks someone else where they live. The second someone answers and names—somewhat grandly, ready to enjoy the response—a country many miles from the East Coast of the United States, which has been called war-torn and which all would agree is seasonally exceptionally hot. They work in this country as a staffer with a United Nations agency. 

The inquiring someone is duly impressed, not expecting such an exotic response. “Wow. That’s amazing.” They move on. “How did you even get here today, to come to this party?” 

“Oh,” the resident of the far flung, war-torn, sometimes hot country replies. “I get two weeks off every six weeks, so I travel a lot.” They go on to mention other plans of places to venture to during time off.

The inquirer continues, “So, how do you find a house or an apartment in [far flung, war-torn, sometimes hot country]?”

The UN staffer says, “I live in a compound with other UN workers, so it’s organized for me.” They further explain that their contract is only for a year or two—flexibility in living locations, not getting bogged down by furniture and the like, is optimal.

The inquirer observes, without judgment, “So you don’t really live in [far flung, war-torn, sometimes hot country].”

It’s not yet dark, but I’ve already sampled too much of the punch. I insert myself. “The UN,” I shriek, not without glee, “is really fucked up.”

When I started freelance reporting from East Africa nearly eight years ago, one of the first notions of which I was disabused was the idea that the United Nations is a positive force in maintaining a moral world order. If I were to navel gaze sufficiently, it’s likely I would still agree with the UN’s ideals. But witnessing, repeatedly, the cynical manifestations of this international body has created in me a deep anger. That fury was reignited as I frantically underlined journalist Sally Hayden’s first book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route.

Hayden’s work, first and foremost, is a record of the manufactured “migration crisis” and the people suffering as a result of the policies offered as solutions to this non-existent problem: a problem created not by refugees, but by states who routinely violate international law in preventing black and brown people fleeing poverty and violence from seeking asylum—in addition to, in many cases, contributing to the destabilization of refugees’ home countries and the climate change that makes them uninhabitable in the first place. (If you’re detecting that refugees from Africa and the Middle East have received a lesser welcome than the approximately 5.2 million Ukrainians who have fled their country since the start of Putin’s invasion, then do keep reading).

A freelance reporter covering Africa in 2018, Hayden was contacted over Facebook message by an Eritrean refugee in Libya who had heard about Hayden’s investigation on UN corruption in refugee camps in Sudan. The Eritrean was trapped in a migration detention center in Tripoli with hundreds of others. Conflict had begun. Everyone in the center was unarmed and terrified. Bullets were flying, and they could see heavy weapons in the streets through their windows. Hayden got on the phone with the man and could hear bombs exploding in the background. He sent Hayden pictures and asked if she could contact a UN agency or human rights group. He told her that no one in the center had eaten in over a day. The UN staff claimed they had regular access to the detainees, but that was clearly not the case. “I had stumbled, inadvertently,” Hayden writes, “on a human rights disaster of epic proportions.”

She stays in touch with the Eritrean and soon connects to others over social media. It gets to the point where Hayden is messaging with many hundreds of people over various digital platforms at a time. Their stories all follow a similar trend: forced from home in East or West Africa because of—among other factors—repressive states (Eritrea has been called the “North Korea of Africa”); conflict; dire economic straits (Joseph, from Sierra Leone, leaves because there are limited employment opportunities at home after the Ebola outbreak, and he has a family to support); or human rights concerns (Sally interviews a Somali refugee who is gay and flees after he hears his family talking about how homosexuals should be tortured), the refugees raise money to pay human smugglers and traffickers who help them drive and walk to Libya, negotiating with volatile militias at checkpoints and baking in vehicles across the Sahara.

“How can we dance and enjoy when UNHCR are playing with us?” one person messages Hayden.

From Libya, they plan to boat across the Mediterranean to Europe. If they make it to Libya, however—in many instances people die along the way—they often find themselves in warehouses, starving, raped, beaten, and enslaved. And their detention in Libya, Hayden finds, is largely empowered by EU funding, especially the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a “multibillion euro pot to be distributed across Africa, aimed at stopping the movement of refugees and migrants.” As Hayden explains, “‘Border management’ was the [Trust Fund’s] second largest thematic area of spending”; the money supported training for security, surveillance equipment, patrol ships, helicopters, and the like, along with a hefty sum for the United Nations. According to Hayden, “Between 2016 and 2021, more than 4.8 billion euro was committed through [the Trust Fund], funding more than five hundred projects in twenty-six African countries.” Last year, the EU specifically pledged more than 445 million euro to Libya.

Across the book, Hayden chronicles the inhumane treatment of detainees, reporting on a young boy dying of appendicitis, his stomach swelling as he contorted in pain; on crowding that forces detainees to sleep in pit toilets; on starvation that leaves mothers so hungry they stop producing breast milk and children unable to cry tears; on systematic abuse and torture all leading to trauma-induced mental decline. Meanwhile, the detainees she speaks to continually express surprise that UN agencies, especially the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who were supposed to be their lifeline, are not helping, and sometimes exacerbate their problems.

UN agencies are led by people making enormous salaries, often living far from the places they say they work. On an institutional level, these agencies regularly demonstrate a mixture of poor planning, ignorance, and cowardice that make things worse for the world’s most vulnerable. Hayden’s work includes countless examples of EU-funded UN errors. Individually, each should represent an embarrassment and trigger some serious introspection. Collectively, they are a damning indictment of the structures of Western aid, much of which runs through the United Nations. The UN, Hayden says, makes Faustian bargains with states in order to continue their operations in a given country, and in many instances, their presence empowers more harm than good. Largely, it was UN agencies and international aid organizations who were supposed to be monitoring conditions inside hellish warehouses like the one Hayden’s Eritrean contact was detained in, but it’s clear that they were not. Their stated presence gives these detention centers a sheen of legitimacy while their actual absence allows them to become torture chambers.

After fighting broke out in Tripoli in 2018, hundreds of refugees and migrants were bussed from a detention facility in the city to a place nicknamed “Guantanamo” about 112 miles southwest of the capital, in a move coordinated between the Libyan government and UNHCR, per a report by the Italian news agency ANSA. According to Hayden, in the largest hangar at “Guantanamo” there were

three toilets for hundreds of men and boys (more than 130 of whom were under the age of eighteen). Refugees had to pee in buckets, and a large pile of rubbish, buzzing with flies and crawling with maggots took up one section of the hall. Insects scurried across mattresses as they slept. No one from the outside world would enter this hall for a full eight months and food was delivered through a hatch.

One detainee messages Sally from the facility and says, “The UNHCR wouldn’t enter when they came because they didn’t want to smell us, they don’t want to see you. If they’re a humanitarian organization, why won’t they see us? If they care about refugees, why won’t they enter and see how we live?”

Another writes, “Where is humanity? People die there more than the smugglers. The smugglers say we are better than UNHCR because they see the outcome.”

Indeed, early in the book Hayden visits a decrepit prison in Sudan, built by colonial Britain, that now holds 150 smugglers and traffickers. The men she talks to essentially tell her that their profession—what they saw as the booming business of moving people from bad situations to better ones—has become criminalized and gone underground, creating the situation that culminates in places like Guantanamo. In Sudan, one smuggler says,

Before 2011 we used to host Eritreans in our houses, allow them to call their families, give them food, but now no one will do that because of the government considering it human trade. The reasons are political of course, especially from other governments, especially from the UN. Sudanese people have been helping Eritrean refugees for a long time. They just come through, and then they leave. People should face the roots of the problem. Eritreans are very pressured, even children.

In the same chapter, Hayden references an investigation from Der Spiegel which found that the EU Emergency Trust Fund supplied the UN with millions of euros to train former Janjaweed—the militia that has been charged with committing war crimes in Darfur—to operate on the border between Sudan and Libya.

But some of the more sickening incidents Hayden recounts include times when the UN is actually present. In Libya, UNHCR sets up an independent center, the “Gathering and Departure Facility” (GDF), which is touted as “alternative to detention.” It took years to complete, was considered—according to staff at other organizations—a shiny distraction, and it remained open for just a year. Hayden stays in contact with some people who make it into the GDF (refugees and migrants called it “the hotel”), but over a brief amount of time, the space deteriorates, and some of the same sadistic guards from other Libyan detention centers are spotted manning the new facility.

When Kaleb, one of Hayden’s main sources, arrives at the GDF, the UN posts his photo on Twitter, along with his full name, boasting that they helped him “find safety.” They do not have his permission to do so: Kaleb has been trying to keep his identity a secret for fear of potential reprisals from the Libyan guards. And on December 18, 2018, on the UN-designated International Migrants’ Day, an audience of Libyan officials and aid workers, as well as diplomats from Africa and Asia, gather to watch detainees who are ordered to perform a reenactment of nearly drowning at sea. The same day, at another center, a film crew bearing snacks and music and tries to get the detainees to dance. “How can we dance and enjoy when UNHCR are playing with us?” one person messages Hayden.

A scene:

We will keep things less vague and polite, this time.

It is late January, maybe mid-February, but definitely pre-Donald Trump, 2016. I’m in Nyal, South Sudan. The youngest country on earth is not at peace. At the time, this area, located in the central north of the country, is controlled by a non-state armed group that is fighting the group affiliated with the government. Years of violence, combined with centuries of exploitative colonialism, have created an obscene humanitarian crisis across the country, and especially for the many, many thousands of South Sudanese here in Nyal. Displaced from their homes, the people of Nyal are living off the leaves that grow on the banks of the Sudd, the third largest swamp in the world. Essentially, there is no food. There are no medical supplies. There are no homes. There are no schools. There is nothing to drink. There is nothing to do. Many thousands of people have fled bloodshed and are now out of their minds with hunger, thirst, trauma, and boredom. A few international aid organizations and UN agencies have camped out in the area. I’m with one such group, reporting on sexual violence. We have sleeping bags and food—nothing ostentatious, but looking back, I wonder why our little camp did not get overrun; it seems completely reasonable that someone might have tried.

The World Food Program (WFP), one of the largest UN agencies, is the central organizer of a food registration process in Nyal. The gist is that everyone lines up to be registered, then after everyone is registered, they must line up again to get food. If I remember correctly, the purpose of this double whammy of bureaucracy is to ensure that participants in armed combat do not receive food. Or maybe it’s to ensure that everyone gets their fair share and no one double dips to sell the extra. Or maybe it’s just so WFP can get a read on the situation. Regardless, the process is torturous. Men and women and children are separated into two lines. People line up at dawn and wait all day under the sun. There’s no water. There’s no shade. It will take a few days, at least, to get everyone registered. People suffer while they wait for help. 

The WFP has farmed out management of the lines to “local” Africans at the bottom of the food chain of the aid groups, the WFP “partners.” These men patrol the lines with sticks, keeping the huddled masses at bay. It is not my place to intervene, but at one point, the beating seems demonstrably excessive right near where I am squatted, talking to a group of women. People next to me are cowering and wailing. I squeeze myself awkwardly into the center of the clump, suspecting the men with sticks haven’t noticed me and that once they do, they will tone it down: it is a painfully racist, cringe-worthy instinct, but I doubt they will hit a white woman. Everyone laughs when I elbow my way in—I’ve made this ghastly situation more pathetic, even if the patrolmen in our area do become less enthusiastic.

Years of violence, combined with centuries of exploitative colonialism, have created an obscene humanitarian crisis across the country.

The registration ends. In the morning, I’m walking with a photographer, moving with a flow of people, from the center of Nyal to the outskirts. We hear something that sounds like gunshots. It seems brief, and there is a war, so no one really skips a beat. But then there are more shots, and shots responding. Something is actually happening. People are coming towards us, not running, but walking fast, from fighting. We keep moving forward, against the flow of people who are starting to run, to see what’s happening. Then we realize that we aren’t going to be able to find out what’s happening in the chaos of the moment, and we have been commissioned to cover sexual violence. No publication is going to take a story about some gunshots in South Sudan.

Later, the photographer and I learn that the fighting was between two men. One of the men with the sticks yesterday had beaten another man in line. Physically and emotionally injured, blind with hunger, wild with righteous rage, presumably in the middle of watching his children starve, the waiting man had acquired a weapon and gone after his assailant. Someone was killed. The food registration is then suspended due to security concerns. Nobody eats at all, except for the foreigners working with the aid agencies. 

The abiding feeling I remember throughout this entire incident, from the ridiculous registration line to the shooting the next day, is deep embarrassment. That’s still what I feel now. Underneath the anger, that’s probably what I felt reading Hayden’s book as well. Readers should not flinch from this emotion but look it directly in the face, and let Hayden’s vital reporting make them reconsider their view of what makes a moral world.