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Salvaging the shipwreck

  • 18 January 2022
‘When you invent the ship’, warned the late cultural theorist Paul Virilio, ‘you also invent the shipwreck’. Virilio was speaking about technologies, but his words have a broader relevance. Social conditions harbor the potential for catastrophe just as many inventions do.

During his December journey to the eastern Mediterranean nations of Cyprus and Greece, Pope Francis drew attention to the conditions for irregular migration that result in thousands drowning at sea and many more languishing for years in camps. The International Organization for Migration records 23,150 missing migrants in the Mediterranean since 2014.

Greece has received over 1 million sea arrivals since the beginning of 2015, with over 856,000 in 2015 alone. Recently, there were 103,000 refugees in Greece and over 60,000 asylum seekers. In Cyprus, the government estimates that asylum seekers account for four per cent of the population.

In both countries, Francis acknowledged the problem that many asylum seekers are stuck in Greece or Cyprus because other European countries refuse to accept their fair share. In Cyprus, speaking directly to migrants, the Pope called for ‘effective recognition of the dignity of every human person’.

In Greece, for the second time in five years the Pope visited Lesvos, an Aegean island through which hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have passed since 2015. There, Francis spoke at the ‘reception and identification centre’ (which has replaced the squalid Moria camp which burned down in 2020) and got to the heart of the problem:

‘The Mediterranean, which for millennia has brought different peoples and distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones … Let us not let our sea (mare nostrum) be transformed into a desolate sea of death (mare mortuum). Let us not allow this place of encounter to become a theatre of conflict. Let us not permit this “sea of memories” to be transformed into a “sea of forgetfulness”. Please brothers and sisters, let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!’

"Perhaps in 2022 a greater recognition of human interdependence can be a starting point, helping to roll back what Francis labels a culture of indifference." 

The ship is the irreplaceable symbol of a shared fate, from the Odyssey to the Bible to Moby Dick. When a government fares poorly, the ‘ship of state’ might be imperiled. Environmentalists sometimes invoke the lone voyage of ‘Spaceship Earth’ to urge collective action against common threats. More lightheartedly, the improbable tale of the Irish Rover depicts the