As rescuers raced to find a handful of wealthy people and explorers who vanished after launching a mission to survey the Titanic, another disaster at sea that's feared to have left hundreds of people dead has been swept from the spotlight.
Last week's sinking of a fishing boat crowded with migrants trying to get from Libya to Italy sparked arrests, violent protests and questions about authorities’ failure to act or find a long-term solution to the issue. But many human rights advocates are frustrated that the world seems to have already moved on and that the resources and media attention being dedicated to the Titan rescue efforts far outweigh those for the sunken migrant ship.
“It’s a horrifying and disgusting contrast,” Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said in a telephone interview, reflecting on the apparent disparities in resources and media attention on the two crises.
“The willingness to allow certain people to die while every effort is made to save others ... it’s a, you know, really dark reflection on humanity,” she said.
The willingness to allow certain people to die while every effort is made to save others ... it’s a, you know, really dark reflection on humanity.
Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch
Sunderland wasn't alone in raising concerns over disparities in attention and resources dedicated to the search for the crew of explorers aboard the missing submersible, named Titan, compared with the deadly shipwreck last week of a vessel carrying hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers.
The front pages the past few days have been dominated by the search for the missing sub, said Josie Naughton, co-founder and CEO of Choose Love, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization supporting refugees around the world.
She said thousands more articles appeared to have been published about the submersible than about the migrant boat, “yet, it’s 100 times as many people who are feared to have lost their lives and these people, they were forced to flee their homes, they were looking for safety.”
“Whilst of course we hope so much that the people on board get brought to safety, it does kind of make you question, what’s the difference in terms of how the media is covering it but also in terms of how, you know, the governments and government infrastructure responds,” Naughton added. “Why is it so different?”
The search for Titan is a race against time as the oxygen supply dwindles on the vessel, which has been missing since it lost contact with its mother ship, the Polar Prince, an hour and 45 minutes after launching its dive early Sunday. The U.S. Coast Guard had said that 96 hours' worth of oxygen is available for the crew of five and it will run out by early Thursday morning, although the exact amount is not known.
With the support of agencies from other nations, the Coast Guard has been racing to find the vessel and its passengers, who have been identified as Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, the company behind the mission; British billionaire Hamish Harding, owner of Action Aviation; French dive expert Paul Henry Nargeolet; and prominent Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son, Suleman.
Sunderland said she was “not surprised” that the search for Titan and its passengers was attracting media attention. The focus on “very wealthy people” potentially “dying on a vanity trip, you know, that’s a ‘good story,’” she said. “The real issue in my mind is the resource question.”
Hundreds feared dead in Greece shipwreck
Greek authorities have so far recovered the bodies of at least 81 people, and more than 100 passengers have been rescued, including Pakistanis, Egyptians, Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians. But survivors and the United Nations have said hundreds were aboard the boat and many are still missing and feared dead.
If a death toll in the hundreds was confirmed, it would be among the worst shipwrecks recorded in the Mediterranean.
Greek authorities have further been criticized for not acting to rescue the migrants, even though a coast guard vessel escorted the trawler for hours. International maritime law dictates that authorities are obligated to conduct immediate rescue operations — with or without an explicit plea for help.
Gianluca Rocco, head of the Greek section of the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency, called it “one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean.”
Artist Oliver Jeffers shared his feelings with a cartoon on Tuesday, which marked World Refugee Day. It depicted a news crew focusing its cameras on a vessel under the sea while turning away from people appearing to drown in nearby waters.
“While we are glued to the news about 5 mostly wealthy tourists lost on a submarine on their way to seek the wreckage of a sunken ship, today is World Refugee Day, and only last week a boat holding hundreds of refugees sank off the coast of Greece,” Jeffers wrote in an Instagram post accompanying the graphic.
“Many (including children) lost their lives on that sinking ship while on their way to seek a safer existence,” he said. “It’s hard to not be cynical about the state of society that this story has gripped us in the midst of a constantly rising refugee crisis with more and more people dying on the daily, and not getting nearly as much attention.”
He asked his followers to make a donation to the International Rescue Committee “while we watch for news of a still hopeful safe return” of the missing sub.
While many shared similar sentiments, not everyone agreed.
Commenting on Jeffers’ post, one person wrote: “The submarine story is leading the news because it is extraordinary, it is weird, and it is associated with a 100+ year old event that has long been part of pop culture.
“As sad as it is, a refugee boat going down is not altogether that uncommon, so it is naturally going to capture the public’s imagination less than a missing deep-sea submarine,” they said. “Acting like we pay attention to one at the expense of the other is a logical fallacy: people can think about two things at once.”
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said she was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy off the Greek coast, and she promised to strengthen cooperation between the European Union and nearby countries to “prevent such tragedies.”
Human rights groups have argued, however, that the current focus on efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling means migrants and refugees often feel forced to take longer and more dangerous routes to reach safe countries.
The best way to prevent the deaths of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees seeking safety is to create “safe and legal routes for asylum-seekers to reach safety so that they’re not forced to take these journeys,” Naughton said.
While she didn’t know what the outcome of the search for the missing submersible and its passengers might be, “what I do know is that 500 people risking their lives in search of safety deserve the same respect as the lives of those on the Titan,” she said.