A seachange is needed over lives lost at sea



In the last hours or minutes of survival, what goes through the minds of those who will be lost at sea? Grief for the family that they will never see again, thoughts of lives that will be unlived, the death of hope and paralysing fear. It’s unimaginable, or is it?

For days we have been mesmerised by the fate of the five men aboard the submersible Titan. We imagined them deep in the Atlantic, in pitch darkness and freezing cold, near the grave of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland. Was the sound reported by a Canadian aircraft one of them knocking in the hope they might be heard before their supply of oxygen ran out? We listened to news updates, conscious of the terrible race against time and hoping or praying for a miracle.

Sometimes those miracles do happen against all the odds. Who can forget how those for children aged between 13 down to one were found after surviving for 40 days in the Amazon jungle following a plane crash or that tiny child found under the rubble 45 hours after the Turkish earthquake last February.

But in that first paragraph I wasn’t only imagining the plight of the Titan’s passengers. I was thinking too, of the seven-months pregnant woman who spent nine hours struggling in the Mediterranean after the small boat smuggling her capsized. Miraculously she was rescued, but only half the 30 or so other migrants aboard survived. These awful incidents are so common now that they aren’t even reported by local papers. I am thinking  of  hundreds of migrant lives lost when a 30-metre fishing boat sank off the coast of Greece, of the 600 or so onboard – 82 dead are so far accounted for, while only 104 were rescued.

Last year 2,062 refugees drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, while between 2014 and 2018 about 12,000 are thought to have drowned. Those involved were poor, non-Caucasian and would have spent their own and their family savings risking their lives at the hands of people smugglers to escape war, persecution, poverty and famine. The men aboard the Titan were white, privileged and the four passengers paid $250,000 each for their trip to the tomb of the Titanic, where 1,500 souls lost their lives on the liner’s 1912 maiden voyage.

Any loss of life to the sea is tragic and bereaved families, wherever they are, deserve our deepest sympathy. In the event there was no miracle for the Titan’s passengers. Wreckage indicating a catastrophic implosion, where death would have been instant, was discovered near the Titanic.

We can’t stop human beings taking risks. Without that risk-taking element there would have been no man on the Moon, no race to the South Pole. But perhaps we can regulate in situations where lives and the lives of rescuers are at risk, never mind the millions spent in search-and-rescue operations like that in the search for the Titan.

After the sinking of the Titanic the convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was introduced to amend a situation where innovation had outpaced regulation. New regulations are sure to follow the Titan tragedy.

That said, what is being done though to stop the risks that migrants face at the hands of the criminal networks running smuggling operations? The EU has an Action Plan on Migrant Smuggling and Asylum intended to tackle this complex problem, ranging from dealing with smugglers, asylum and care of migrants and co-operation and information exchange between nations. How effective is the plan?

Already by early this year 400 migrants had drowned crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, the worst figures so far for so early in the year. This week another 40 migrants, so far accounted for, were drowned off the coast of Italy. The figures speak for themselves.

The wealthy can spend hundreds of thousands on extreme tourism trips like jaunts into space, never mind the millions required for rescue operations.

“The rich are different from you and me” Scott Fitzgerald once told Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway replied: “Yeah, they’ve got more money”. Maybe their priorities are different also.

Maybe ours are too. We focused intensely on those five lives aboard the Titan while thousands of  migrants continue to drown on the doorstep of Europe.

If we can shift that focus to insisting on effective action for migrants at risk, those five lives won’t have been lost in vain.

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