Five years ago, Irish freelancer Sally Hayden was scrolling through Netflix in her sublet room in London when she received a Facebook message from a migrant trapped in a Libyan detention centre, describing human abuses and the danger he and his fellow detainees were facing amid conflict and unrest in the country.

This one message led her on a one-woman fact-finding mission into abuse, torture, starvation and even death, committed by Libyan smugglers and authorities partially financed by the European Union, with the United Nations and NGOs standing by.

The stories of hundreds of migrants were published in her book "My Fourth Time, We Drowned", which went on to win myriad awards, such as The Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2022, as well as being named a Financial Times Best Political Book of 2022, a New Yorker Best Book of 2022 and many more. She was also vocal about the issue in various news articles.

"It’s one of the most important stories to report in the world today and that’s why I dedicated years of my life to it," Hayden told

Her mission, she added, was to document the consequences of European anti-migration policies "so people cannot say anymore they didn’t know about it."

'It took over my personal life'

As the network of her sources was growing, with detainees sharing her contact details so she could expose more hardships they were facing, Hayden started to publish the messages on her personal Facebook and Twitter, raking up millions of views and shares.

Although the boundaries between her personal and professional use of social media were increasingly blurred, she tried to be clear about her role as a journalist, not giving advice or promising to help people other than through sharing and exposing what was happening to them.

Hayden slowly discovered that the stories of these migrants are not just underreported but virtually unknown. Even EU officials in charge of implementing the policies had little knowledge of the consequences they had on the people fleeing their countries and trying to cross to Europe.

"A lot of this knowledge just wasn’t available," she says, adding that her meticulous documenting of the harrowing stories of migrants later became the first available source of information for experts from European institutions and NGOs.

Since its publication, the book has been debated in the Irish Senate, Scottish parliament, spoken about by the Irish president, cited in a submission to the International Criminal Court and referred to by prosecutors of smugglers.

'It’s done in our name'

Stories of men, women and children being smuggled, starved, tortured or murdered are a hard read. Despite that, the book is having an impressive reach. It is also been published in North America and is about to be translated into Dutch, Italian and Spanish.

The publication of her book is all the more poignant as many countries, including the UK, are tightening up their immigration policies and fuelling anti-migrant sentiment.

"I don’t want to be a voice of anybody, I don’t want to be a white spokesperson for refugees," says Hayden, about the conflict between wanting to elevate unheard voices and becoming the face of documenting migrant stories. The wrongdoing is done by Europeans for Europeans, she adds, so if she as a European journalist reports this story, it adds value.

"Journalism can harden you, and if you are not careful, it tears away at your empathy. […] And I hate all the hubris that can accompany this work, the feeling that you are important simply because you are aware of what is happening," writes Hayden in the book. She also talks about becoming frightened by death threats, legal threats and aggressive emails that come with working on this topic.

However, she declines to talk about the impact of this story on her mental health or her views on migration policies because she does not "want to be the story."

One of the hardest parts of the publishing process was, in fact, winning various book prizes, her work being celebrated and seeing her career progress off the back of these horrific stories - meanwhile, the situation for her sources was not changing. She has donated the prize money and part of the proceeds from her book as a result.

"I never chased this story, it came to me. If it weren’t for those messages, maybe I would never have chosen to do it."

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