Shine A Light

#‎DontLetThemDrown‬ (It’s all right for some, at sea)

The UK government reckons that letting people drown will prevent unnecessary deaths.

Alison Whyte
8 November 2014

Protesting in Palermo after the Lampedusa calamity Antonio Melita / Demotix. All rights reserved.

Opposition is swelling to the UK government’s inhumane decision not to support a new mission to save migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. On Thursday evening people protested outside the Home Office and thousands more have signed a petition to continue the mission. 

Not everyone believes we have a moral obligation to help drowning people. Foreign office minister Baroness Anelay, explaining the government’s position in the House of Lords last month, said that search and rescue operations, “create an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

This week, above a report about migrants arriving on a Canary Island beach, a headline in the Daily Mail screams “Run, they may have ebola!” And UKIP’s candidate for Rochester and Strood Mark Reckless heaped praise on the ex-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Why? Because people who wanted to escape from his murderous dictatorship were prevented from leaving the country. 

Global inequality becomes even clearer when you look at people in boats. If you want to escape from a country wracked by war or ruled by a brutal dictator, you have to hand over your life savings to traffickers who will cram you into a rotting, overcrowded boat. Once at sea, you may suffocate in an airless cabin or drown as the leaky vessel sinks.

If on the other hand you are European or American you can unwind by going on a themed cruise that takes your fancy – ‘wine-tasting’, ‘gourmet’, ‘ Strictly’, ’murder mystery’ or ‘clothes-free’.  You can even go on a ‘cruise to nowhere’ where the ship just sails around without a port of call. 

I recently went on a Mediterranean cruise, as a ‘plus one’ with a journalist friend.  For the passengers, it is a pleasant enough experience, if you can overlook the fact that every person who offers you a cocktail or turns down your bed at night comes from a developing country and is probably earning a pittance. You also need to blank out the thought that while you’re chilling by the pool on the 14th floor, a group of terrified, hungry and desperate migrants could be clinging to a wreck that is drifting past below. 


'Ebola scare on Canary Island nudist beach' Daily Mail, November 2014

While migrants survive on a small amount of water, cruise ship passengers can feast on food prepared by Marco Pierre White, Nobu, Olly Smith or the patissier Eric Lanlard. On some cruise ships, master sommeliers oversee the cheese and wine and one boasts an award-winning chocolatier. Others have Champagne on tap. 

Even on less expensive cruises you can gorge on food, tucking into a large cooked breakfast, a three-course lunch, cream tea, wine and canapés, ending up with a lavish evening meal.   On a ship with 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew —11,000 kg of beef, 10,211 kg of chicken, 6,283 kg of fish, 110,820 eggs, 2,270 litres of ice cream and 3,400 bottles of wine — are just a few of the items consumed in one week.    

The average age on a cruise ship is 55. Unsurprisingly many people are overweight and some are clinically obese.  The bodies of people who die on board, mainly of a heart attack, are discreetly removed to the ports at dawn.

To cater for the growing number of cruise ship passengers, staff are recruited from throughout Asia, eastern Europe, the Caribbean and central America. On our cruise most of the waiters were Filipino while those cleaning bedrooms and toilets were Indonesian.  

Cruise ships are often registered in countries with lax employment laws.  Staff are typically on six-month contracts, working an average of 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off. They are generally paid from ‘gratuities’ which form part of the ticket price. Staff on our cruise ship said they earned around 20 dollars a day.

Cruise ships are the fastest growing holiday sector and the Passenger Shipping Association estimates that 1.76 million people will take a cruise this year. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 3,000 people have already died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, many in rickety, smugglers’ boats.

People who go on cruises aren’t all rich, greedy and uncaring. Not all cruise ship staff would say they feel exploited and some of the migrants who set sail from Libya reach the other side.  But if you want proof of how grotesquely unequal our world has become, you only have to look to the sea. 

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