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OPINION

Titan rescue efforts raise questions about whether migrants’ lives are also worth saving

For travelers aboard the Titan, high-stakes travel was elective; submersible tourism was billed as a ‘thrilling and unique travel experience’ on the company’s website. ‘High-cost, high-risk’ travel for migrants is, by contrast, more fraught.

Migrants swam next to their overturned wooden boat during a rescue operation by Spanish NGO Open Arms at south of the Italian Lampedusa island at the Mediterranean Sea, Aug. 11, 2022.Francisco Seco/Associated Press

The world has been captivated this week by a search for the Titan, a missing submersible carrying five passengers. Rescue crews from the United States, Canada, and beyond joined forces in an operation that experts compared to a “moonshot.” All available resources and technology were deployed in an attempt to save those aboard — a British billionaire, a father and son from a preeminent Pakistani family, a French maritime expert, and the CEO of OceanGate, the company that designed the submersible.

While we mourn the lives lost and take inspiration from this extraordinary effort, the rescue operation raises questions about a differential valuation of human life. The political will and resources devoted to trying to save the wealthiest among us far outweigh those directed at trying to rescue the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have also been lost at sea in their search for safety.

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In 2022, 38 migrants died when their boat capsized off the coast of Florida. Last week, hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while the Greek Coast Guard stood by. Of course, the total number of migrants attempting to immigrate by sea is unknown — unless they are apprehended and detained, or their bodies are recovered, their stories will never be told.

The passengers aboard the Titan are part of a growing industry of “high-cost, high-risk” travel, sought out by the uberwealthy. With “hefty price tags” (the OceanGate Titanic trip cost $250,000 per person), those able to pay can push the boundaries of human travel — bringing tourism to space, the South Pole, or the depths of the ocean floor.

“High-cost, high-risk” travel for migrants is, by contrast, more fraught. When migrants and asylum seekers step into the hastily crafted wooden dinghies destined for the Florida coast or Mediterranean ports, they are fleeing gender-based violence in Haiti, political persecution in Belarus, and forced gang-recruitment in El Salvador, among others. Their journey seeking safety is often as haunting as the circumstances they fled. They face the possibility of trafficking and exploitation en route, the risk of capsizing and drowning, and, in perhaps the best of circumstances, the possibility of being apprehended and detained by law enforcement agencies that often have an abysmal record of keeping migrants in their custody safe and alive. Yet they take these risks because they’ve determined that staying behind is more dangerous.

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For travelers aboard the Titan, and those like them, high-stakes travel is elective; submersible tourism was billed as a “thrilling and unique travel experience” on the company’s website. Self-funded excursions into dangerous terrain beg few societal questions about who bears the burden of rescue in the case of emergency. Migrants and asylum seekers take to the sea because they view it as their only hope of escape and survival; a chance that can cost them tens of thousands of dollars. Unlike their much wealthier counterparts, the money they spend on travel often puts them in debt for decades. And, while politicians debate immigration policy, few questions are asked when entire migrant families drown, as happened recently off the coast of Greece.

Another striking contrast can be found in the global response to this week’s lost submersible. The Titan search and rescue mission was an admirable display of transnational partnership, with a French robot deployed in Canadian waters under joint military operations, US and Canadian aircraft, and British surveillance. By contrast, when migrants go missing at sea, politicians argue that search and rescue missions are an ill-advised “pull factor” when what is needed is deterrence. Ironically, one millionaire was so appalled by migrant drownings in the Mediterranean that he bought a boat and took to personally rescuing migrants. But the world can’t rely on the beneficence of a wealthy few to carry out the obligations of governments.

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Some might argue that the actions taken by those aboard the Titan were, while perhaps reckless, legal — whereas migrants often seek safety in other countries without proper authorization. Still, suggesting that death is an appropriate consequence for unauthorized migration is as morally and legally indefensible as turning a blind eye to the Titan’s disappearance. It also discounts the historically complex ways in which US and other transnational policies are implicated in global migration.

We extend our condolences to the passengers’ families. We also hope that the “unwavering effort” undertaken in this rescue will be extended to the next group of Venezuelan migrants capsized off the coast of Miami or Afghani refugees adrift in the Mediterranean Sea.

Sarah Sherman-Stokes is a clinical associate professor of law and associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic at Boston University School of Law. Rachel Silver is an assistant professor at York University’s Faculty of Education and Centre for Refugee Studies in Toronto.

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