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Tragedy at sea shows the stark contrast by which we value human life

The deaths of dozens of destitute migrants should be the turning point for how we manage our borders, writes Zoe Gardner

15-year-old KontÈ holds a three-month-old baby girl during their three-day journey on board the Aita Mari to safe harbour after being rescued by the Spanish NGO SMH in February 2023. Other migrants and the adventurers on the Titan submarine were not so lucky. Image: Ximena Borrazas/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

It has become clear that the horrifying story of the lost Titan submarine on its expedition to visit the wreck of the Titanic will not be ending in a last-minute miraculous rescue. 

Tragically, it seems the five people on board have died, and the enormous international search and rescue operation we have seen unfurl over the past few days will be wound up. Already, the investigations and accusations about the safety measures undertaken by OceanGate, the high-end tourism company responsible for the excursion, have begun. No doubt there will be in-depth scrutiny, perhaps even changes in the law of how submersible vessels are regulated, in response to this tragedy.

Our fascination with this horrifying tale, the resources directed at search and rescue, and the growing demands for policy responses to prevent future tragedies of the same kind are all reasonable and warranted in my opinion. They are the human response we should have to such a tragedy. What has knocked me off balance, however, is the extraordinary contrast between this, and our response to other people lost at sea.

This morning, while I heard the latest about the submersible headlining the news, I was really listening to hear if there may be an update on a different group: about 35 men, women and children, lost in the very same sea, much closer to land, much easier to potentially have saved, off the coast of the Canary Islands. 

This group of people who drowned were migrants seeking to reach Europe for a chance at a new life in safety. They were not mentioned. You may not have heard about it either – in fact, in all likelihood, we’ll never know even the precise number of how many died, let alone their names. How could we? If we knew every name of the people who drown as they escape danger, poverty and war, we would have to reckon with how much their lives are worth.

Even when we do talk about migrant deaths – as we do in really exceptional circumstances, like when as many 500 people drowned in one disaster off the Greek coast last week – our conversations are not the same. We ask how the journeys could have been prevented, which they cannot, not how we could make them safe. We don’t demand policy changes and greater regulation on the part of those responsible to protect future travellers. We don’t hear their relatives on the news extolling their qualities, not least their sense of adventure. Quite simply: we do not value their lives or the lives of other people like them as we did those of the people on the submersible and other people – rich people – like them.

But it’s more than a sick passivity towards migrant deaths, that one could at least argue is born of desensitisation. We do far more than simply ignore the growing graveyard in the seas surrounding Europe. While I listened to the head of the Canadian coast guard say that no expense would be spared in the search for the submersible, I thought of the humanitarian rescue workers charged as criminals and threatened with lengthy prison sentences in Greece, and the search and rescue vessels impounded in Italy to prevent them from assisting migrants in peril.

This is not passivity, and it is not a question of lacking resources either. No expense is spared in the pursuit of the same policies of deterrence and containment that force people to take ever more dangerous crossings. The EU has just paid the government of Tunisia €100 million for so-called “migration management”, which essentially means surveillance, border patrols and detention centres, and has promised another billion if “results” are good. 

The EU is essentially paying to make Tunisia into a prison for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, which can only be escaped by ever more desperate and dangerous means. This despite the Tunisian government’s recent slide from democracy to dictatorship, government officials’ incitement of racial violence, and the resulting dramatic deteriorating security situation there, especially for Black African migrants – which of course is what has prompted more departures from Tunisia in recent weeks.

Rich people who can afford to take a trip to the Titanic are not subject to these restrictions on their freedom to move, they are able to pay the high visa fees, obtain the elite qualifications, and command the high salaries required to make crossing a border a matter of paperwork, rather than of survival. No expense is spared to keep the others out of Europe, however. Not the expense of hundreds of millions of Euros, not even the expense of our values, principles, or humanity. 

The contrast has been illustrated too starkly this week to be ignored and it must, finally, lead to a reckoning with how our borders are set up as cages for the poor, resulting in an endless tide of deaths. 

We can change these policies, we can respond as humans should to a tragedy of our own making, but we need to value destitute migrants as highly as billionaires.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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