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‘We were in a trap’: refugee recalls horrific conditions in the camp where she lost her baby

How many women and children are in effect sentenced to death for trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe? That’s what Hibaq wanted to talk about when I met her in central Dublin last year. The 22-year-old went through a horrific, years-long journey to flee war in her the country of her birth, Somalia. She is now living in the city with her husband and the child who was the result of her second pregnancy. But it’s her first baby that Hibaq keeps remembering, a baby who did not survive.

 

Hers is one of the stories detailed in my new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned, which details the devastating consequences of hardening European migration policy.

Since 2017, the EU has been spending tens of millions of euro on training and equipping the Libyan coastguard to carry out what is in effect a circumnavigation of international law. Roughly 90,000 men, women and children have been intercepted on the central Mediterranean Sea and forced back to detention centres which Pope Francis, among others, has compared to concentration camps. They are locked up indefinitely, without charge or any legal recourse to get released.

While European boats are not legally allowed to return people to a country where their lives are in danger, Libyan boats can, and they act on surveillance and intelligence passed on by European planes, drones and helicopters. The funding for the Libyan coastguard comes through the EU Trust Fund for Africa, towards which Ireland has contributed more than €15m.

Hibaq was held in three detention centres after trying to cross the sea to Italy and she wanted to highlight the devastating effects of this policy on women and children. She initially fled the Islamic terrorist group Al Shabaab, which has carried out regular attacks in Somalia, including one in 2017 that killed more than 580 people in Mogadishu. That was the same year she finally left.

As a result of her desire to reach a safe place, Hibaq would end up spending two years in Libya, a war-torn country still not recovered from the 2011 Nato-backed revolution that ousted longstanding dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In the 11 years since, the country has been split between multiple governments and many more militias. Trafficking and smuggling networks initially flourished.

Hibaq ended up in a smuggler’s warehouse, where she was held for ransom. This happens to many refugees so desperate to escape the horrors they are fleeing from that they travel through north Africa on what are in effect “go now, pay later” schemes. Once they reach Libya, the prices demanded are multiplied; bodies tortured until their families pay the money, which is sometimes crowdfunded on Facebook or through WhatsApp.

In the smuggler’s warehouse, Hibaq married a fellow Somali. By the time she was intercepted at sea, she was pregnant.

In detention, malnourishment and starvation are common, with detainees often receiving just one or two meals of plain pasta a day. During her pregnancy, Hibaq went without both the nutrients and toiletries she needed. After nine months, she ended up being taken to hospital and operated on, but her baby wasn’t breathing. After the stillbirth, she was sent straight back to detention.

Though they are not as likely to appear in photos, largely because of increased concerns about retaliation, Libya’s detention centres are full of women, along with hundreds of children. There are many pregnant women locked up in Libya, Hibaq says, about half whom she estimates conceived as the result of rape by smugglers or Libyan guards.

Coerced

These observations have been backed up by other sources. Last year, Amnesty International released a report including interviews with women held in a centre called Shara’ al-Zawiya. They said male guards coerced women into having sex in exchange for food or their freedom, and badly beat those who resisted. Multiple sources also said two babies had died because they were not given medical treatment.

In October 2021, a fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations found that “torture (such as electric shocks) and sexual violence (including rape and forced prostitution) are prevalent” in migrant detention centres and that “the only practicable means of escape is by paying large sums of money to the guards or engaging in forced labour or sexual favours inside or outside the detention centre for the benefit of private individuals”.

It said that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants form part of a systematic and widespread attack,” meaning they may amount to “crimes against humanity”.

My book details how Europeans are effectively responsible, even if they cannot be held culpable legally. This is being done in all of our names, and so far there has been no widespread outcry; no concerted efforts to have it stopped. In 2019, a European Parliament resolution asking for co-operation with the Libyan coastguard to be ended in the event of fundamental human rights violations lost by two votes, with four Fine Gael MEPs among those who opposed it.

In April 2019, a war broke out in Libyan capital Tripoli. The Tajoura detention centre in the city’s east, where Hibaq was locked up, was both a weapons store and a militia base. Detainees there had long warned that they were being used as human shields by the Tripoli-based government, and they used hidden phones to send distress calls to me and others. They were also used as forced labour. In the morning, militiamen would patrol the halls, looking for refugees and migrants who might be capable of moving weapons; washing down military vehicles; and even assisting or fighting on the front lines.

Military officers inspect the damage at the Tajoura migrant detention centre in Tripoli after an air strike on a nearby building that left dozens dead in 2019. Photo by Mahmud Turkia/Getty

An airstrike hit the compound the following month, shrapnel tearing through the roof of a hall the women were being held in, nearly hitting an infant. Two months later, worse took place, when more than 50 detained refugees and migrants were killed because of an airstrike on the hall they were being held in.

Hibaq says the scar from her caesarean section was still oozing when this bombing took place. She was terrified. In the aftermath, hundreds of traumatised survivors were released from detention. They tried to get assistance from the UN, and were eventually allowed to stay inside a UN-run compound for a few months, but then they were forced out on the streets. Hibaq and other mothers and children were also told they had been rejected for legal evacuation — an opportunity available to only a small number of refugees because of a lack of spaces offered by Western countries. “We had nowhere to go,” Hibaq recalled. “We were in a trap.”

They paid smugglers another time to let them try to cross the sea. In late 2019, a charity ship rescued Hibaq and her husband from a flimsy dinghy and brought them to Italy. The following year, they were resettled to Ireland under an agreement to redistribute the refugees who had been taken on shore.

‘Nice welcome’

In August 2021, I sat on a wooden bench on Bachelor’s Walk with Hibaq. In a black pram beside us was her eight-month-old baby, Maida, who wore a stripy babygrow and a head covering with pearls at the front, and gurgling happily. To our right was the Ha’penny Bridge. Men in orange kayaks rowed in a line. The sun was beating down.

“Ireland is a great country. It’s a nice country. They welcomed us nicely, they gave us asylum, we really appreciate it,” Hibaq said.

But there have been challenges. The small family are still staying in a single room in a hostel. Hibaq estimated that 200 people live there — making it particularly difficult at the height of the pandemic, when they were instructed to limit their exposure to other residents.

It is a hard place to mind a baby, she said: there is a communal play area but no real space of their own. The family’s legal status has been confirmed, and they want to search for new accommodation, but the housing crisis means it is nearly impossible to find anywhere suitable.

Hibaq — who had painted her nails red and wore a mask that read ‘Dance every day’ — explained that she is setting herself small goals. She wants to become fluent in English and join a gym to get fit and healthy. In the future, she would like to train to help women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Maida was born in the Rotunda, and Hibaq said she was treated well there. But she still thinks back to the pain of losing her first baby. She doesn’t want any other woman to go through what she experienced.

In Libya, she said, “men can run away, they can do whatever they need to escape. The people that suffer the most are children and women. They can’t escape, they can’t do anything.

“Women and children face a horrible situation. When the women are pregnant, there are no good doctors… When the baby’s ready to come out, there’s no good doctor that can help you. Most of the women lost their babies, like me.”

‘My Fourth Time, We Drowned’ by Sally Hayden is published by Harper Collins

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