A Statement about Media Coverage and Proportion
*Every two words you read in this article represents one casualty [estimate]
Over a month ago, on the 14th of June, a boat carrying as many as 750 refugees from Libya to Italy, capsized off the coast of Greece. Only 104 passengers survived the wreck while the rest, which included all women and children on board, are presently missing and presumed dead. The Greek coastguard confirmed just 82 of these deaths following the incident; a number which has not been updated in over a month. Officials claim that passengers refused offers of help in the hours leading up to the ship capsizing. However, according to survivor testimonies, the boat sank when the Greek coastguard attempted to tow the overcrowded vessel with a rope; causing it to destabilise. Testimonials also reveal that Greek coastguards did not in fact attempt to save the hundreds of people who drowned as a result.
“[Coastguards] were right next to us when it capsized” reported one survivor—who remains anonymous in fear of repercussions from Greek authorities. “The moment it sank, they moved away from us. They deliberately made us sink,”
External inquiries into the wreck have found that Greek officials altered survivor testimonies to suppress their involvement. The Greek coastguard, in their investigation, lays blame of the tragedy on people smugglers, and have since arrested nine shipwreck survivors on allegations of involvement.
The exploitative operation which involves smuggling people across the Mediterranean–often at significant cost to individuals–is certainly at fault for the extremely poor conditions faced by passengers. Survivors of the incident reported deaths due to overcrowding and lack of food and water even prior to the ship sinking . However on a wider scale, people smuggling operations fill the void of humanitarian intervention, forcing asylum-seekers to utilise dangerous escape routes, as opposed to no escape at all.
Dutch sociologist and researcher on migration, Hein de Haas, argues that increased spending on border controls, as a response to increased refugee numbers, is counterproductive.
“While politicians and the media routinely blame smugglers for the suffering and dying at Europe’s borders, this diverts the attention away from the fact that smuggling is a reaction to the militarisation of border controls,”
In the face of strict migration policies, refugees are forced to rely on smuggling operations to escape unlivable conditions. Many of those onboard the capsized boat were fleeing Pakistan, where an economic crisis has made necessities, like food, a luxury for millions of people. A family member of a man believed to be on the shipwreck describes the heartache of hearing the news. His brother had chosen to take the journey with his 3-year-old son, in the hope of a better future.
“It’s not just that 385 [Pakistani] people died, it’s 385 families that are completely devastated and hopeless,” said Naeem.
The main issue perpetuating the refugee crisis is the lack of accountability surrounding global commitments to assist refugees. On World Refugee Day, just a few days after this tragic shipwreck, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, urged world leaders to “live up to their responsibility” to the 35 million refugees worldwide.
“I call on governments to increase resettlement opportunities for refugees desperately in need. And I call on states to embrace policies that harness the enormous potential refugees have to contribute to the social, economic and political life of the countries hosting them. We know too well the cost of inaction: a world with the highest forced displacement in recorded history. We cannot let this continue.”
Currently, the responsibility for refugees is undertaken by a small number of countries such as Lebanon, Uganda, Sweden and Germany, while other countries have offered little to no support at all. Not only does this create undue financial burden for those countries providing assistance to large portions of refugees, it also limits the effectiveness of applying for asylum for individuals. The application process in countries who accept high numbers of refugees can take over 3 years due to extensive backlogs.
In 2013, the European Union introduced the Dublin Regulation—an agreement between European countries surrounding shared responsibility for processing asylum applications. Ineffective implementation and squabbling has undercut the program, with countries like Italy and Greece consuming the majority of refugees, especially those arriving by boat. Greece’s capacity to receive asylum seekers has been overwhelmed; and as a result large numbers of people live in overcrowded camps without access to basic humanitarian needs while their asylum applications are processed. The consequence of this, like we’ve witnessed already, is the more treacherous endeavour undertaken by refugee boats to reach Italy.
This refugee boat sinking is only one of the recent tragedies of this kind. Every year thousands of refugees die during their journey across the sea, fleeing violence, poverty and war. Statistics recorded are merely conservative estimates of the true extent of lives lost. The crisis is only expected to worsen as global wealth inequality increases and climate-related disasters become more frequent. Without proactive efforts by global political leaders to accommodate refugees, or financially support countries who do, the suffering of millions searching for stability is only perpetuated.
The lack of media interest and global action fuelled by this crisis makes it apparent the extent to which the lives of refugees are undervalued and underrepresented. New York Times writer Richard Pérez-Peña highlights this disparity of media coverage in his article ‘5 Deaths at Sea Gripped the World. Hundreds of Others Got a Shrug.’—referring to the stark differences in attention drawn by two vastly different tragedies.
“In study after study, people show more compassion for the individual victim who can be seen in vivid detail than for a seemingly faceless mass of people.”
Priyamvada Gopal describes this anonymity as the “buffer” between millions of refugees, and the rest of the world.
“Without that buffer, we would have to acknowledge the singularity and worth of the 25,000 human beings—who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe since 2014, and who have become, in our minds, little other than numbers with brown faces.”
Undeniably, numbers and statistics on their own are difficult to conceptualise. Our technological world demands that, for a tragedy to become a spectacle, it must be visual. It must sit in front of us like a portrait to gawk at. For us to empathise with the victims, it must include pictures, captioned with names (as long as these names slide easily off the tongue). To really send the message home— to turn a tragedy into something we might actually want to acknowledge, let alone act upon— it also ought to include video footage and documentaries about them, and tear-jerking pleas for support from their loved ones.
It’s not enough that many people have died and will continue to die searching for a life beyond war, poverty and climate catastrophe. These deaths must be consumable, digestible, bite-sized. Whether intentional or not, a story with five casualties has gripped the world more than a crisis with thousands of casualties, a story that is ongoing.
The most just way we might tell the story of hundreds (but really, of millions) of refugees, is to tell it in proportion. To acknowledge that it does not start or end with the single boat sinking that coincided with a more newsworthy tragedy. To recognise that two words cannot represent an entire life. To emphasise that this is PRECISELY THE POINT!
*every two words you read in this article represents one casualty [exact]
5 casualties confirmed in unregulated multi-million dollar submersible vessel implosion.