How coverage of the Titan submersible & small boats reflects the dehumanisation of refugees

Professor Jennifer Allsopp on the 'heroic' coverage of the Titan submersible, versus the dehumanising 'tragic tropes' used to cover the sinking of small boats.

Small boat filled with people on the sea.

On Friday, Boris Johnson joined the choir of voices who have been making links between the destruction of the Titan submersible and the shipwreck of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. Evoking tropes from the Classics, the former Prime Minister made a stark distinction between the passengers of the Titan, whom he celebrated as heroes seeking to ‘push the boundaries of knowledge’ and ‘democratise the ocean’ floor, and the Pakistani refugees, to whom he gave the deceptive label assigned to anyone who consents to being smuggled, that of beguiled victims - read, 'poor sods'.

Like Johnson’s, most media portraits in the last two weeks which draw parallels between the Titan and the unnamed ship that sank in the Mediterranean make a distinction in the genre through which they recount the stories. On one hand, the enterprising Titan billionaires are recounted as a Hollywood epic, and the story of a throng of faceless passive victims of despotic governors and evil smugglers, told as a tragedy with which we are all too familiar – and frankly numb and bored.

Media accounts are now showing that the men on the submersible were likely ‘tricked’ into their watery grave with false information and we are deeply moved by WhatsApp exchanges documenting their fear. The survivors of the Mediterranean shipwreck, including Mohammed Hamza whose voice has been widely featured on the BBC, have spoken out about how they bravely made efforts to fight the forces of fate. They say they appealed for help multiple times, countering the narrative of the Greek coastguard. For decades, the surviving passengers of the Titanic - women and children not seen as credible sources - were similarly gaslit when they told authorities the ship split in half. ‘Not possible,’ it was said until the first visit to the wreckage proved otherwise.

I hope that the parallels being drawn between the horrific tragedies of the Titan mission and the refugees drowned at sea can make us recognize the heroism of refugees and the fact that, as well as fleeing something in the past, most refugee journeys are inspired by a brave story of hope for humanity that looks forward. This is a lens from which we can draw a sense of common empathy and inspiration that speaks to us all, instead of locking refugees in a tragic and racist trope that causes us to see their lives as somehow inexorably different to ours.

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