This week, I not only learned about international regulations and policies regarding the Mediterranean migration crisis, but also had the extremely jarring experience of watching real-time footage of a rescue mission during a presentation by Professor Niels Frenzen, the USC Gould School of Law and photojournalist Darrin Zammit Lupi. While Frenzen provided legal background of international human rights law regarding the asylum seekers, Lupi shared his experience as a photographer in shaping the political dialogue concerning the crisis. While many issues with ethical implications were discussed, I was most intrigued by the potential causes for the relative invisibility of this tremendous violation of human rights.
Lupi highlighted the problematic lack of attention paid to the Mediterranean migration crisis by drawing a comparison to our continued commemoration of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Despite occurring more than a century ago and involving fewer causalities, Lupi argued that we still memorialize the lives lost then more so than those currently lost during the passage across the Mediterranean. Furthermore, he added that the few migrants who do survive are often returned to Libya, experiencing torture, slavery, and sexual violence. Indeed, an article in The Atlantic elucidated Lupi’s insight into the differential reporting of deaths in the media. While ISIS had killed thousands of innocent people, it was not until the deaths of two international journalists that both the media and Obama administration seemed to heed greater attention towards addressing the militant group.
While I understood his point, I also felt moral unease upon hearing Lupi’s comparison between these two tragedies. Contemplating the implications of the comparison, however, I thought that it raised some interesting questions. Would there still be a dearth of attention and resources if instead of being black or brown, the asylum seekers were white? If the migration was occurring off the coast of the United States instead of the Mediterranean? Is geography or race a more salient contributing factor towards apathetic attitudes of the migrant crisis?
Drawing a connection to my project at Families Moving Forward, I noticed that the “out of sight out of mind” attitude towards the refugee crisis is also common towards those experiencing homelessness. As Lupi noted, it is simply by an “accident of geography” that these migrants are forced to flee their country. One could also argue that circumstances beyond one’s control are at least partially responsible for some instances of homelessness. Although many individuals experience displacement both internationally and domestically, there is a lack of awareness for refugee and homeless populations. While sharing my experience participating in MASTERY with several recent Duke graduates, almost all of them were shocked to learn that a refugee community even existed in Durham. Moreover, prior to writing this post I was not aware that, as the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports, approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are expected to experience homelessness in the United States in a given year. Unlike the migrants in Lupi’s presentation, however, refugees and homeless individuals are not separated by miles of ocean, but are just a few blocks away from campus. If physical distance cannot work as an excuse for a lack of support and advocacy on behalf of these individuals, then what is creating this invisibility?