Migrants drowning off Italy have focused urgent attention on the dreadful humanitarian catastrophe.U.S Navy Photo

The heartbreaking scenes of migrants drowning in the waters of Italy as they seek to gain access to Europe have focused urgent attention on the dreadful humanitarian catastrophe occurring off Europe’s shores.

The overloaded fishing boats are the modern day equivalent of the coffin ships that up to a million Irish sailed in trying to reach their brave new world during Famine times.

Like the Irish, the refugees on board are fleeing terrible destruction in their own countries and are desperate for a chance at life elsewhere.

Like the Irish too, they are being vilified and stereotyped as barbarian like creatures seeking to live off the host country.

The hapless migrants are abused in every way possible, paying extortionate rates to smugglers and corrupt Libyan police and enduring massive hardship on the voyage itself, often ending in death.

For those turned back there is only life in refugee camps in Libya, vividly described as hell holes in a New York Times report which followed two eight-year-old Eritrean boys as they languished there after their boat got turned back.

it did not have to be so. The Italian government under its program of Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea,” successfully intercepted the vast majority of the boats before they entered deep waters and ensured that thousands of lives were saved. Then in a cost cutting move the European Union stopped the Mare Nostrum patrols and introduced a far less expansive scheme that has proven an abject failure.

Now, given the hideous outcome of their failed policy, they are quickly reverting to the Italian model again.

But the deeper questions need to be addressed. The seas between Libya and Italy are where the third word meets the first, where grinding poverty and hopeless lives for millions translate into sea journeys, like the Irish in Famine times, that will end in disaster for many.

Yet they keep coming, an example of how desperate they truly are.

And there is real humanity on the other side of the divide, Last week a yacht carrying refugees from Eritrea broke up near the Greek island of Crete, pictures of the dead and drowning were contrasted with the incredible bravery of one Greek off duty policeman who single-handedly saved 20 lives and said he only wishes he could have saved more.

The vexed question of refugees has bedeviled the European Union for several years now since Libya became a country effectively without a government, and strife in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East has forced millions to flee.

But the beginning of a coherent policy must start with saving the lives of the innocent. In this regard the Irish government decision to add its efforts to stem the tide of dead refugees is to be welcomed.

The Irish of any European country know what it is like to flee persecution and famine. The ghosts of the Famine coffin ships would demand nothing else.