On June 19, 2023, U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard teams, together with other supporting parties, launched a massive operation to rescue the five people on board the Titan, a submersible that was on its way to the site of the Titanic shipwreck. Five days later, news emerged that the vessel had suffered a catastrophic implosion during its descent to the bottom of the ocean, and that all five passengers had died.
Less than a week before the Titan incident occurred, an overcrowded fishing trawler carrying up to 750 migrants capsized and sank off the Greek coast. Rescuers reportedly saved 104 passengers and recovered 78 bodies, but the remaining 500 or more people were feared to have drowned. The Greek Coast Guard has been widely accused of failing to offer proper assistance in a timely manner to the distressed passengers. Greek and European authorities are currently conducting investigations into the nature and adequacy of the Coast Guard response.
There has been a global outcry over what many consider to be unequal treatment of the two incidents. Many people believe that the Titan rescue mission garnered significant attention and had enormous amounts of resources deployed to it because the people on board were wealthy. In contrast, those people charge that less care was given to the migrant vessel because it was filled with South Asian and the Middle Eastern citizens, mostly poor people whose race and economic status influenced the type of help they received.
The accusation is not an unreasonable one. Relative to people of lesser means, privileged people receive far more beneficial attention in all aspects of life. And all of us are right to be angry about the loss of life on such a massive scale. But making this so much about race and economic status risks missing some other very important factors.
In making these types of judgments, it is often helpful to examine how other rescue missions have been handled in the past. The most memorable recent incident occurred in Thailand in 2018. A group of boys, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old soccer coach, were trapped inside a flooded cave. Thai Navy Seals and diving experts from around the world worked around the clock for two weeks in an operation that successfully brought the boys and their coach to safety. One of the volunteer divers sadly lost his life in that dangerous rescue mission, which attracted enormous global attention.
In 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped after an explosion inside a copper mine in the Atacama Desert. Volunteers from around the world joined Chilean teams in a painstaking effort to rescue the miners. It took 69 days to accomplish that mission, and the world’s attention was similarly glued to it during that entire time.
Neither the soccer boys and their coach in Thailand nor the Chilean miners were wealthy people. Other than their relatives and close friends, it is quite likely that no one knew them. Yet, people from everywhere dropped everything they were doing and rushed in to offer help. Judging by these two missions and other previous ones, it is clear that the scale of the effort mounted to rescue the Titan passengers, and the attention it garnered, were not that unusual.
One of the issues people have raised is whether the world should worry so much about five wealthy individuals who spent $250,000 each to embark on such an adventure, while millions of people struggle to meet basic needs. That is a fair question to ask. But would we think differently if we learned that one of the men was a philanthropist who regularly donated millions of dollars to help educate poor children, or to set up shelters for the homeless? Without knowing the characters of the people on board the vessel, and how they lived their lives, it is perhaps inappropriate to make such moral judgments about them. After all, most of us, wealthy or not, sometimes spend in ways that can be objectively questionable.
A large share of the blame for the migrant boat disaster should be placed on dysfunctional EU migration policy. For years, frontline countries, mainly Italy and Greece, have appealed to other European countries to take in some of the migrants arriving at their shores. Repeated attempts to structure a continent-wide system to distribute migrants equitably have failed, leaving those frontline countries overwhelmed. Facing political backlash against immigration, European politicians would rather pay leaders in countries like Libya and Turkey to push migrants back to where they came from, to prevent them from reaching continental Europe.
In general, humans are programmed to respond to one-time problems better than we do with recurring ones. The Titan, Thai-cave and Chilean-mine rescue missions all fall in the one-time category. When problems of great magnitude recur with increasing frequency, we quickly despair and throw our hands up in the air. That jadedness breeds inertia. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to look the other way when any life is in imminent danger. If it is determined that the Greek Coast Guard indeed failed to offer adequate assistance that would have saved the hundreds who drowned, those responsible for the failure must be held fully accountable. But those of us who are outraged do have a responsibility to face up to the realities of the migration issue.
The frustrations expressed by the Greeks and Italians are quite similar to the complaints by officials from frontline U.S. states such as Texas, Florida, and Arizona, who say that the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to protect the southern border. They feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless stream of desperate migrants from South America who end up getting stuck in their states because there is no comprehensive national immigration policy to deal with the problem. That frustration is partly what has led to some frontline-state governors to bus migrants to New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and other inland states, ostensibly to give the people there a “taste” of what they are being forced to deal with.
Ultimately, the solution to this global migration crisis is to improve socio-economic conditions in the countries from which these desperate migrants are fleeing. But that is an even tougher nut to crack, and a long-term project. So, in the meantime, we should be brutally honest about the scale and complexity of the problem we have on our hands as a global community. When we look at these thorny issues predominantly through racial and economic-status prisms, we rob ourselves of the focus that is required to deal with the problem effectively.