The migrants and the super rich: A tale of two seaborne tragedies

By Nana-Ama Danquah

Posted on June 23, 2023 17:47

 © Migrants claiming to be from Darfur, Sudan cross the English Channel in an inflatable boat near Dover, Britain, August 4, 2021. Picture taken August 4, 2021.  REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Migrants claiming to be from Darfur, Sudan cross the English Channel in an inflatable boat near Dover, Britain, August 4, 2021. Picture taken August 4, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Is the life of a millionaire of more value than the life of a migrant?

The question seems ridiculous.

Most people would feign shock and immediately say no: A human life is a human life.

But in our capitalistic world, that would be disingenuous.

This week, with the deaths of the men aboard the Titan submersible and the deaths of the men, women and children on an overcrowded fishing trawler, we’ve seen the power of class and status, even in the midst of tragedy.

The truth lies not only in their deaths, but also in the lives they led, the very circumstances that placed them in the vessels which carried them to their demise.

It’s so easy when one places these tragedies side by side, to see the subtle and not-so-subtle ways such biases are shaped.

On 18 June, four men, one accompanied by his 19-year-old son, boarded the Titan with the intention of travelling 12,500 feet below sea level to tour the wreckage of the Titanic, the reputedly unsinkable luxury steamship that sank in 1912 on its maiden voyage.

A little less than two hours after its descent, the Titan lost contact with its mothership, triggering a five-day multinational search.  Canada, the United States, Britain and France offered resources: C-17 transport planes, patrol planes, surface ships, aquatic drones, two remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs), and dozens of support personnel.

There was round-the-clock news coverage of the search, including a minute-by-minute countdown of the amount of breathable air left in the vessel. It led internationals bulletins.

On the fifth day, it was announced that debris discovered on the ocean floor indicated that the Titan had imploded and all five men aboard the vessel were presumed dead.

On 14 June, four days before the Titan made its descent, between 400 and 750 people boarded a 30-metre fishing trawler in Libya —100 of whom were children who were kept below deck.

Their intention was to sail to Italy, where they would stay and seek asylum, or continue north into other European countries. The boat capsized in the early morning hours in international waters, about 80 kilometres from the coastal town of Pylos, within the Greek search-and-rescue area.  104 people survived; 78 were confirmed dead; hundreds are missing.

Greek officials, who have come under much scrutiny for their treatment of migrants, reportedly delayed assistance.

Far from being a cooperative international effort, much of the search-and-rescue came from the crew of a privately owned superyacht, the Mayan Queen, that happened to be sailing nearby, as well as the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization.

Eventually, the Greek coastguard also joined the effort. Media coverage of the incident remains scant.

The men aboard the Titan were wealthy. There was the American founder and CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, the company that built the submersible and operated the tours; a British billionaire and businessman; a French maritime expert; and a Pakistani father and son who were heirs to the fortune of one of that country’s richest families. They paid $250,000 each for their seats in the submersible.

All that was ever reported about the individuals on the fishing trawler were that they were migrants and refugees, mostly from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. For them, there have been no features or photos showing them smiling, or well-crafted biographies. They are nameless, faceless, and their stories will more than likely never be shared with the world.

A former Greek coastguard admiral called migrant boats like the fishing trawler that capsized “floating coffins”.  That could also have been said of the submersible, which apparently had “as much room as a minivan”, with a hatch that was sealed shut from the outside with 17 bolts, and an Xbox game controller for steering.

So, why would anybody willingly get on either vessel? Every time there is a tragedy involving migrants the issue of risk is raised.  Why place your fate and that of your family in the hands of smugglers, unscrupulous people whose only concern is making money? Why risk having to pay the ultimate price to be packed in like sardines with other migrants on a boat that’s not seaworthy?

British-Somali poet Warsan Shire offers a powerful response to such questions in her poem, “Home”: No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark/ you only run for the border/ when you see the whole city running as well/ […] you have to understand,/ that no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land.

Migrants and refugees are looked upon with disdain.  If they survive the perilous journey they’ve taken, they will land on the shores of a country that won’t wholeheartedly welcome them, a country that will most likely detain or deport them. It speaks volumes that to them, the possibility of even the smallest glimmer of hope for survival, let alone success, is worth the probability of those harsh consequences.

For the men aboard the Titan, who paid a quarter million dollars and signed a waiver that mentioned possibility of death three times in the first page alone, seeing the wreckage of the Titanic was worth whatever risk.

Stockton Rush, CEO of Ocean Gate, in an interview, said, “You know, at some point, safety is just pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything.  At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question.”

Even as the media is reporting that their journey was a “suicide mission,” they are also memorialising the men as a daredevil, an explorer who knew no bounds, a legend in exploration and, a father and son who cherished a shared passion for adventure.

The migrants who perished will simply be remembered, by everyone other than their family and friends as a statistic. The fact that their lives, indeed all our lives, can so easily be consigned to memory or subject to erasure, based solely on financial wealth and social standing is, in and of itself, a tremendous tragedy and disservice to humanity.

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