The disparities in coverage and global interest are unmistakably stark. In the last week, the unquiet seas have folded two vessels into their depths. One is an unnamed fishing trawler carrying as many as 750 people desperate to reach safety, most of whom are still missing, unlikely to have survived, about 92.6km (50 nautical miles) off the coast of Greece. The other is the Titan, a small submersible with five men on board that has still not been found 685km (370 nautical miles) off the Atlantic coast of Canada at the time of writing. A massive hunt for the submersible is ongoing involving the US and Canadian coast guards, a French rescue team, the Pentagon, private vessels, and top-notch equipment, including Remote Underwater Vehicles and aerial support.
The missing submersible has elicited round-the-clock coverage with many media websites hosting “live” updates and news programmes leading with the story. There are even question-and-answer forums hosted by the BBC to address all possible details.
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The sinking of the fishing vessel last Wednesday has been covered, of course, but with an air of weary repetition. Here was another boat full of “illegal” brown people making a risky bid to enter Fortress Europe which has repeatedly warned them not to attempt the journey. The Greek coastguard is now embroiled in controversy about whether, when and how it responded to the vessel’s clear distress over a period of several hours. In stark contrast to the heavy multinational rescue efforts for the OceanGate submersible, the trawler, like other refugee vessels, had little help. Human Rights Watch notes: “No EU ships actively patrol anywhere near where most boats enter into distress. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard, conducts aerial surveillance in service of interceptions and returns, not rescues.”
Some of the five men on board the privately-owned adventure submersible, including British billionaire Hamish Harding, may have paid a quarter of a million dollars each for a seat on the Titan. We have been told the others in the vessel were wealthy British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, Stockton Rush, chief executive of OceanGate, the expedition firm behind the dive, and a French explorer, Paul-Henry Nargeolet.
Of those on the doomed fishing vessel en route from Libya to Italy we know nothing other than over half are Pakistani, likely poor, and that there were probably Syrians, Libyans and other North Africans on board as well. Facelessness and anonymity are the buffer between those of us ensconced in our homes and those who risk everything after leaving theirs. Without that buffer, we would have to acknowledge the singularity and worth of the 25,000 human beings, more than 1,200 in 2022 alone, who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe since 2014 and who have become, in our minds, little other than numbers with brown faces. They too would be worthy of full-blown high-tech rescue efforts instead of being criminalised as “illegal” with rescuers also risking being charged with “facilitating” asylum seekers.
Why this disparity? The crude, if dismaying, answer is that ours is a world in which the lives of a few matter significantly more than the lives of the many, a disparity that intensifies along geopolitical, class, race and caste lines. The poor, the vulnerable and the victims of war clinging to the sides of a rubber dinghy are not “mournable” in the same way as the wealthy white man figured as an “explorer” or “adventurer” who goes to sea in an expensive bespoke vessel.
This disparity is built into the stories we, and the media, tell ourselves and who gets to figure as a hero in them. Accounts of refugees and asylum seekers in the European media repeatedly play down the dangers they face in their places of departure, usually their homes, painting them collectively as “economic migrants” (read “greedy”) or making fraudulent claims in order to access Europe’s welfare systems. They are also portrayed as gullible and foolhardy, giving their money to criminals in exchange for passage and risking their safety in craft that are patently not seaworthy. By flouting deterrents, it is implied, refugees bring catastrophe upon themselves.
Contrast this with the air of tragic heroism and bravery already invested upon the five men in the Titan, its classical Greek name invoking not just the Titanic, the doomed object of its underwater tourism, but the might of the Greek pantheon. The men have been referred to as “explorers” and “adventurers”, a category familiar to us from colonial lore, courageous men in pith helmets ready to venture where no one has dared go before (even if what they “discovered” was already inhabited). Today’s context for such expensive and generally superfluous expeditions is not so much the hope of finding new horizons as it is personal gratification, manifest in space travel for fun touted by billionaires like Richard Branson and Elon Musk. OceanGate’s website offers its clients a “thrilling and unique travel experience” with a “chance to step outside of everyday life and discover something truly extraordinary”.
If refugees knowingly risk their lives by coming aboard unseaworthy craft, there are also questions to be asked of OceanGate’s “experimental submersible” which is apparently not certified by an outside body. The company has explicitly alluded to SpaceX and Virgin Galactic in indicating that inside experts are sufficient and that the time taken for outside bodies to certify experimental vehicles is “anathema to rapid innovation”. Its well-heeled clients must sign a waiver accepting the risk of death during an expedition.
Death is a reality that many refugees and asylum seekers also accept, though arguably they have far less luxury of choice in the matter. “If I die right now, I’ll die with no regrets…It was hell. Nothing less than hell,” said one refugee who left Libya in 2020 after being rescued from an overcrowded rubber boat in distress in the Mediterranean. Yet the courage of refugees in seeking to leave hellish situations and make new lives in strange new places is rarely lauded. As the poet Warsan Shire famously declared, “No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave… anywhere is safer than here.”
No tragedy, at sea or elsewhere, requires us to forfeit grief. We are obliged, however, to ask ourselves whose lives we are inclined to mourn and whose lives we consign to our collective equanimity. Who gets to be the hero of an epic or the protagonist of a tragedy, and who is relegated to the margins of human history? Unlike Homer who believed that only a few could survive an Odyssey, perhaps we can hope that all who brave the dangers of the unkind seas may emerge “alive through a big surf to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.