On Saturday, March 23, the engines of the cruise ship Viking Sky lost power during stormy weather off the west coast of Norway. After a distress signal was sent, the Norwegian authorities immediately dispatched several rescue ships (who had to be called back because of the weather) as well as five helicopters, who airlifted 479 passengers to safety. The ship made it to the Norwegian port of Molde under its own power the following day. Ambulances awaited the ship’s arrival in case of injuries, and twenty people were treated at local facilities. Passengers were taken to local hotels, where evacuee centers had been established.
In the following days, the above news organizations included several lengthy and well-researched articles about various aspects of what occurred—the rescue efforts of local authorities, the terror experienced by the passengers, the heroic actions of the crew, the reactions by medical teams in the host port, an investigation of the cause of the mishap.
A few days later, on March 26, a boat carrying 15 migrants from Iran and Afghanistan sank off the coast of Turkey. Its goal was to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. Eleven passengers were rescued, while the remaining four, including one baby, tragically lost their lives.
That a near-tragedy involving Westerners garnered more international attention than an actual tragedy in which non-Westerners lost their lives is hardly surprising. We witness similar occurrences on a regular basis. More disturbing than the disparity in the media coverage of these two incidents, however, is the gap in the resources devoted to the care of the victims.
Most of the 915 passengers on board the Viking Sky were from Great Britain and the United States. This begs an obvious question. How would the Norwegians have reacted had the Viking Sky been filled with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Would they have sent five rescue helicopters? Would they have treated their injuries and welcomed them?
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since 2015 roughly fifteen thousand refugees have perished in the Mediterranean Sea on their way from Turkey and North Africa to Europe. Though the number of arrivals has decreased since the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, the number of deaths in 2018 was 2,275, still unacceptably high. Many of these migrants flee war, torture, imprisonment, abuse and slavery in an attempt to reach Western Europe.
When refugee vessels run into trouble during the short crossing from Turkey to the nearby Greek islands, the Turkish or Greek coast guard sometimes come to the rescue. But more often than not, there are no rescue ships to be found.
In October of 2018, Michel was on a small boat attempting to make the crossing from the Turkish coastline to Lesbos. Michel was fleeing his native Cameroon, where he had been imprisoned and tortured for several months. When the boat capsized, there was no distress signal, and no rescue ships were sent. Instead, the passengers were forced to fend for themselves.
“Several of my friends drowned,” Michel told me in January. He was lucky however, and he was able to swim to shore.
The European Union (EU) knows only too well the precariousness of the situation of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Often caught in stormy seas in craft that are far from seaworthy, many die. Why does Europe do everything it can to rescue Western vacationers yet ignores the plight of refugees? Does the EU not have a moral responsibility to at least have sufficient rescue vessels available in case of need? And when the refugees are lucky enough to be rescued, should they not be treated in the same way as the passengers on the Viking Sky?
The Aquarius Dignitus is a ship that has been used since 2016 by Doctors Without Borders to rescue migrants making the crossing from Libya to Italy. In June of 2018, carrying 629 refugees, it was turned away by both Malta and Italy, where hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stated that the migrants would “only see Italy on a postcard.” After a week at sea, the vessel was finally granted permission to dock in the Spanish port of Valencia. Italy has refused to allow rescue ships to enter its ports, and in 2017 it struck a deal with Libya that empowered the Libyan coast guard to return refugees picked up at sea to Libya, where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.
Even when ships are allowed to unload their human cargo, the treatment they receive bears little resemblance to that experienced by the passengers of the Viking Sky.
Mohamed, an Iraqi refugee who landed on Lesbos in October of 2017, told me that everyone on his boat was treated miserably upon arrival.
“We were taken right away to be processed,” he said. “My clothes were still wet. We were given a half-liter bottle of water and a few olives. We had to wait for nine hours before we were given a blanket.”
Michel’s treatment was even worse. Once in Greece, he was quickly disavowed of his vague notion that Europe was a bastion of human rights. Within a few days of his arrival, he was in prison, because the Greek government decided that Cameroonians did not have a good chance to be awarded asylum.
After their ordeal on the Viking Sky, most of the passengers flew home. Michel’s future is much less clear. He was released from prison after three months, and he is now staying in the notorious Moria refugee camp, where conditions are so bad that the BBC has called it the worst refugee camp on Earth, and the pope has likened it to a concentration camp. He does not know how long he will be forced to remain there.
Europe is being judged for the effort it has put forth on behalf of the refugees. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” By that standard, Europe has failed miserably.
The EU (and the more generally, the West) has a moral responsibility to find a solution to the refugee problem, which, one could easily argue, it has played a major role in creating. That is certainly the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, where recent direct Western intervention has made those countries unsafe for large segments of the population. It could also be argued that the same is true in Syria and many other countries from which people are fleeing.
At the very least, the West should ensure that refugees fleeing for their lives are not forced to board ramshackle crafts that are likely to sink in stormy weather. Finally, it should arrange for their safe passage and for their dignified and humane treatment once in Europe.