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The Guardian view on danger at sea: looking out for all those in peril | Editorial

A massive operation is under way to find and save a stricken vessel and its passengers. As time passes, anxious families and friends wait with growing fear. The US coastguard, Canadian armed forces and commercial vessels are all hunting for the Titan submersible, which has gone missing with five aboard on a dive to the wreck of the Titanic in the north Atlantic. The UK’s Ministry of Defence is also monitoring the situation.

It is hard to think of a starker contrast with the response to a fishing boat which sank in the Mediterranean last week with an estimated 750 people, including children, packed onboard. Only about 100 survived, making this one of the deadliest disasters in the Mediterranean. Greece and the EU blame people smugglers, who overcrowd boats and abuse those aboard them. But both have profound questions to answer about their own role in such disasters. Activists say authorities were repeatedly warned of the danger this boat faced, hours before it went down, but failed to act.

Greece has said that the vessel was moving steadily, was not at risk, and that passengers refused help; survivors and tracking data paint a very different picture. The Greek coastguard’s record includes forcible and dangerous pushbacks of asylum seekers, with a recent video showing a family including small children being set adrift on a raft. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard, is also – rightly – under growing scrutiny.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, has praised Greece as the bloc’s “shield” against migration – not only applauding its role, but using the language of combat and self-defence. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, last year described Europe as a “garden” and most of the world as a “jungle” which “could invade” it unless there was greater engagement. Following the backlash, he said he was sorry “if some were offended” and insisted he was referring to the rule of law in contrast with lawlessness. On the most generous interpretation, he showed a startling ignorance of the implications of such language. On a more cynical one, he pandered to it.

The rhetoric of a hostile world’s encroachment upon Europe is used in part to try to stem the advance of the far right, showing that mainstream politicians and officials are not ignoring the issues it exploits to win support. But this contributes to an environment in which there is a growing sense of an “us”, living in safety and relative comfort, menaced by a “them” seeking the same things. Most of those on board the boat last week are believed to have been Pakistani nationals, who had grown desperate as the country’s economic situation deteriorated.


“Migrant” has become a word that disguises rather than illuminates the individuals behind the label – humans with the usual struggles, hopes and fears for themselves and their families, loved as dearly as any others, and as deserving of dignity, safety and concern. That mass drownings have become so common – more than 25,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014 – is shameful in itself. What is worse is that these disasters have come to be seen as almost normal. Planes and boats are scrambled to save a handful of people who took a risk for an adventure, while children and adults in imminent danger wait until catastrophe strikes.

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Published: 2023-06-20 18:52:57


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