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Titan and the trawler: Frontier mobility and carceral immobility

By Soma Chatterjee | Issue 24

Coloured wall at sea, by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash.

The capacity to decide who can move, who can settle, where and under what conditions is increasingly becoming the core of political struggles. (Achille Mbembe

Last summer, a fishing trawler with approximately 500 migrant workers on board capsised off the Greek coast, with only 104 rescued. The same week, a submersible operated by OceanGate Expeditions with four billionaires on board went missing on a tour of the Titanic. The events, proximitous and tied at their core by the spirit of daring, nevertheless generated grossly disproportionate media, state and popular attention. By many accounts, the trawler did not receive necessary help, neither from the coast guards nor from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex. Its coverage was quickly overshadowed by that of the submersible which activated a multi-government search and rescue operation including the USA, Canadian and French navy and coast guards, the Pentagon, and privately, the Magellan Deep Water Specialists. 

Among numerous ethical and political questions that arise, the one I pose here is: how is it that multiple countries were rapidly harnessed to search for a privately owned submersible while governments and the mainstream media checked out from a fishing trawler with at least 500 migrants, including 100 children, though both were at the bottom of the sea? This blatant disregard for the lives of migrants – while grossly disproportionate resources were mobilised for a handful of very rich people who each paid over $250,000 for seats on an unregistered, experimental submersible – drew outrage from scholars, activists, journalists and civil society. The disparity was rightfully read through the comparison of mournable and disposable lives. 

However, these otherwise robust critiques missed a key aspect of the hypermobility enjoyed by the billionaire tourists, which sits at one extreme from immobility. The private enterprise charting the depths of the ocean is at one end of a spectrum, while at the other end, people are forced into choppy waters in leaky boats. 

From hypermobility to immobility

Be it defined as charting the depths of the ocean for travel or exploration, or accessing outer space to build worker colonies, hypermobility relies on immobilising a vast majority of humans: physically, through bordering practices such as incarceration, and sociopolitically through nationalist rhetoric casting the “foreign” as the problem and the migrants as invaders. As Achille Mbembe writes, ‘certain categories of the population are constantly seen as posing a threat, not only to themselves and to their own security, but also to others’ security’. Dominant policy thinking is to turn migration into a problem and borders into solutions. We see this idea borne out through a border security regime working in tandem with the prison, military industries and the research and development agenda across major immigration jurisdictions, such as the European Union. 

All this is underway while governments continue to expand temporary foreign labour programmes. Indeed, precarious and so-called “illegal” migration is one of the key reasons for contemporary wealth and capital accumulation, which, at the same time, drives up unprecedented inequality. Consistently considered “illegal”, migrants take up jobs under desperate conditions, creating ‘the surplus value’ that is, however, ‘never deemed illegal’.  

It is the migrants’ illegalisation that allows coast guards to routinely watch over their deaths and states to punish rescue work. The Titan tourists, on the other hand, invoked the spirit of frontier travel and a world without borders. Tributes for “the titans” started pouring in as the news of their being lost in the sea was made public. We knew they were adventurers, science enthusiasts: ‘true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans’. In short, they were citizens of a borderless universe, now invested with an aura of titanic glory and pathos. ‘Loss of the titan’, the Explorers Club wrote about Hamish Harding, one of the tourists. 

It warrants some attention that three of the tourists were connected to The Explorers’ Club, a private membership club with over 100 years’ history of exploration, including the North and the South Poles, Mt. Everest, the Mariana Trench and the surface of the moon. The club has declared commitment to ‘broaden[ing] our reach and expand[ing] our horizons’ and its members are considered to be ‘pushing the limits of knowledge and human endurance’. Diligent eyes would notice how this spirit of exploration is wedded to entrepreneurialism. Apart from being Titanic enthusiasts, the tourists were billionaire innovators and business tycoons. Statements about them were released from the White House and the British Prime Minister. Live updates were available from many news media. 

We forget at our own peril that, historically, it is private capital that has secured access to the farthest corners of the world and it has done so with active and enthusiastic state support. From the settler colonies to the space race of the 1960s to the recent space colonisation projects granted by NASA, the nexus of frontier exploration and colonial exploits is historic and ongoing.

The world, Eduardo Galeano wrote, was ‘born yearning to be a home for everyone’. Its owners, however, ‘prefer not to remember’. As such, mobility and search for home are criminalised and active collaboration between major migration jurisdictions on espionage and border surveillance seems the order of the day. What are the political and analytical nuances we miss when neglecting to criticise the curious organisation of societies as fiercely territorial when it comes to humans, while capital roams free and even extraterrestrially? 

The passionate calls for justice and humanity for migrants that we hear from across major immigration jurisdictions - however ethically urgent - do not capture the incongruence between hypermobility and immobility highlighted through these recent crises.

Lives valued differentially

The Titan story will be long, possibly involving spectacular movies, long drawn-out lawsuits and hopefully, changes to contemporary frontier exploration. But whose responsibility is it to keep the stories of the nameless and faceless Pakistanis, Syrians, Afghans and Libyans alive? Many of them children, we know they pleaded for help. We know they likely paid their life’s savings to be on that trawler. They did dare to venture for better lives away from war, dispossession, grinding poverty, death and deprivation. After all, ‘African and diasporic struggles for freedom and self-determination’, Mbembe wrote, ‘have always been intertwined with the aspiration to move unchained’. Is ‘adventurous’ an adjective we would reserve for them, or only for the Titans?  

To invoke John Berger, migrant workers are ‘immortal’: they keep coming to the metropole to carry out their singular function: to work. Indeed, the trawler was one among many such to capsise on the way to the EU since the 2000s, as per records kept by Migrant Files, and the International Organisation for Migration. In a world inflicted by what seem to be faraway wars, famines, and authoritarian rules, migrant boats will continue to be in distress and missing. How many more deaths then, before we see more humane migration pathways? The answer will elude us as long as a chosen few continue to be celebrated as daring explorers while others vilified as invading aliens.

Soma Chatterjee

I am a researcher and a scholar of migration, mobility justice, nationalism and border studies. Within this overarching interest, I look into the politics of state-formed identity categories (e.g. ‘immigrant’, ‘Canadian’, ‘Canadian-born’, ‘non-status’, ‘refugee’ etc.) and their implications for contemporary Western nation building. The ‘entanglement’ of immigration policies/immigrant integration, anti-racist politics and indigenous self-determination in contemporary settler nations, primarily Canada, forms another important pillar of my research interests. I am also a keen follower of social and political issues of relevance to South Asia and South Asians (in diaspora and beyond), including student migratory patterns from South Asia, and diaspora engagement policies of major South Asian emigration states. I teach at York University, Toronto, Canada.


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