We just witnessed the deadliest shipwreck in years. The world barely flinched.
It’s a date that should go down in history — a stain on our collective conscience. On June 14th, 2023, the Adriana, a fishing boat carrying 750 people, capsized in the Mediterranean. The more than 600 deaths were entirely preventable. And yet the world barely flinched.
Few were interested in why those desperate hundreds risked their lives in search of better, handed their life savings to brutal smugglers, and crammed themselves onto an unseaworthy vessel bound for Europe. I wonder if we will ever learn the names of the dead.
They were families, neighbors, and groups of friends from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt. They began their doomed voyage in Libya, where they piled into a rusting boat. The smugglers forced the Pakistanis, women and children into the lower decks. There were no life-jackets.
The journey to Italy was supposed to take three days. On the second day the engine faltered, the food and water ran out the following day. The first deaths came on day three, and on the fourth day, the Adriana at last issued a distress call.
What happened next is still unclear. Coast guards monitored the ship as the smugglers reportedly insisted on continuing their journey. Then, in the early hours of June 14, disaster struck, and the boat capsized — an investigation into how and why is ongoing.
The hundreds below deck were killed instantly, pulled beneath the waves as the ship sank and the passengers on the upper decks were thrown into the water. The coast guard rescued 104 people and recovered 82 bodies. No women or children were among the survivors.
The moment I heard the news, my thoughts went to Doaa, the Syrian refugee whose story I told in my book, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea. My mind raced back to that day in 2014 when I heard she had saved a baby from a shipwreck off Malta that had killed 500 people.
I was struck by the similarities between the Adriana and Doaa’s shipwreck. Back then, hundreds had drowned below deck when their ship capsized on the way to Italy. Among the dead were many women and children, along with Doaa’s fiance, who had drowned in front of her eyes.
Now in Sweden, Doaa has somehow found the strength to go on with her life. But now this. Just as I was hoping she hadn’t been re-traumatized, my phone buzzed. It was Doaa. Her relatives had been on board the Adriana, could I find out if they were alive? Next came a photo.
I stared in horror at the three men smiling back at the camera. What a cruel twist of fate. How could one life be hit by such misfortune? Then came the anger, and the shame. Almost a decade on, how were these disasters still happening? How had we failed to stop them?
At the same time, my UNHCR friend and colleague Erasmia Roumana was meeting with Adriana survivors in a warehouse in Greece. Exhausted and shell-shocked, they all asked the same two questions: What happened to the others? How do I let my family know I’m alive?
Miraculously, Erasmia, who had met Doaa in similar circumstances in 2014, spotted one of Doaa’s relatives among the survivors. The other two are still missing, though Doaa hasn’t given up hope they may yet be found. My heart goes out to her and her family.
Almost as hard to bear is the sheer indifference. Shipwrecks on this scale are rare, and yet the reporting on the Adriana didn’t even mention Doaa’s shipwreck as a reference point. It is simply baffling to me. What kind of world so easily forgets the loss of 500 lives on one ship?
Worst of all was the timing. While Doaa waited to hear the fate of her loved ones on the Adriana, the world’s eyes were elsewhere, obsessing over the gripping search for the crew of a tiny submersible bound for the wreck of the Titanic. It must have felt like some cruel, sick joke.
The deaths of those five wealthy tourists were tragic. But they should by any sane measure have been utterly dwarfed by the scale of the shipwreck.
There has been some strong media reporting, but nothing compared to the breathless coverage of the submersible. I am heartened to see some great investigative journalism reconstructing what lead to the disaster here in the Washington Post and the New York Times. The NYT headline is especially telling: Everyone Knew the Migrant Ship was Doomed. No One helped.
As the world keep firmly looking the other way, the deaths keep mounting. The Adriana disaster brought the human toll from the major migrant sea routes to Europe to close to 2,000 this year alone.
The UN has long been calling for urgent action to save lives at sea. We want European states to decriminalize rescue efforts, coordinate search and rescue operations, and bring smugglers to justice.
There simply is no other way to save lives. People living in danger, or left to languish without prospects, will continue to move. They desperately need safe and legal pathways to do so.
Policy makers have the power to end it here. If we make this tragedy count, we can remember the Adriana as the wake-up call that finally gave every human life equal value. No one should have to die trying to reach a better, safer life.
Thank you to Josie Le Blond for her collaboration on this piece.