Last week we saw another horrific incident in the Mediterranean as around 200 migrants trying to get from North Africa to Europe on an overloaded old fishing boat were drowned when their vessel suddenly capsized. And this time the Irish Navy was close by when it happened.
The migrant problem has been ongoing now for some time and came to a head earlier this year when over 700 people died in one sinking. That prompted a crisis meeting between European countries and an agreement to provide navy rescue ships to patrol the Med to prevent a tragedy on that scale being repeated.
The Irish Navy has been playing its part in this operation. What happened on Wednesday of last week was that a fishing boat reported to be carrying around 600 migrants capsized off the coast of Libya and despite the best efforts of the Irish navy ship, the Le Niamh, which was first on the scene, around 200 died.
When the Niamh spotted the migrant boat it deployed two ribs to approach the vessel from the bow and stern. This is standard procedure to stop the migrants crammed on the deck pushing to one side and destabilizing the boat. But this time it didn't work.
As far as we know, perhaps because they suddenly spotted the Irish ship or only saw one rib, the migrants shifted too much weight to one side and the fishing boat capsized and sank in less than a minute. In the dreadful and chaotic scenes which followed, the crew of the Niamh did outstanding work to save as many people as they did, launching life rafts and throwing life belts and helping people to climb the grab ropes and nets to board the ship.
No one is questioning the heroic efforts made by the Irish Navy crew in this appalling situation, but the incident has again raised serious questions among people here about the EU policy on the migrant crisis in the Med. Reports of the tragedy on the Irish Independent website drew hundreds of comments from readers, and almost all of them were highly critical of the policy the Irish Navy was following.
These comments made a number of points. The Niamh had encountered the fishing boat just 15 miles off the coast of Libya, and many readers said that by sailing so close to where the migrants were coming from, the Irish Navy was making the problem worse rather than better. It meant that the traffickers could tell migrants that they were bound to be rescued within a few hours by a navy ship and therefore it was okay to cram people on top of and inside boats.
Many of those commenting made the point that instead of bringing those picked up to Italy, the navy ships should be returning them to the small ports on the Libyan coast they had come from. If that was done for a few weeks, it was argued, the migrants would soon realize that it was pointless to try to get to Europe this way and the problem on the Med would be solved.
Many commenters pointed approvingly to the way the Australian government had solved the problem they had some years ago of migrants coming by sea from Indonesia and other places. Migrants picked up by their ships are brought to islands that are part of Papua New Guinea where they are housed in detention centers, and their claims for asylum are assessed, a system paid for by the Australian government. None is allowed to land in Australia and bypass the procedure for legally gaining entry there. This policy has almost eliminated what used to be a serious problem for Australia.
It was also pointed out by commenters that the pictures of migrants being rescued from boats on the Med showed that the vast majority of them were young men and that they appeared to be not just from conflict zones like Syria and Libya but also from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere. The conclusion drawn was that many of them were economic migrants in search of a better life rather than asylum seekers in search of safety.
Rescuing them on the Med and bringing them to Europe, it was argued, was allowing them to jump the line and was undermining the system European countries have for dealing with asylum seekers.
Another obvious point made was that since Italy (and Greece) already have more migrants than they can cope with and are not making much of an effort to process them, the migrants leave as quickly as they can get free and head for northern Europe. Several of those commenting wondered how many of the several thousand migrants rescued by Irish Navy ships in the Med this year are among the thousands of migrants now at the port of Calais in northern France trying to get to Britain on trucks and trains going through the Euro tunnel.
This has caused chaos in the area and among those being threatened by the migrants -- almost all of whom are young men -- are Irish lorry drivers.
Two things were noticeable about the huge number of comments on Independent.ie. Firstly, they were devoid of any racist undertones.
Some commenters expressed the belief that it will be difficult for Ireland to take in more migrants given the very high level of immigration we have had in the last decade (far higher than experienced by the U.S., for example). But even these people did not have a problem with the 500 extra we have agreed to accept this year and the 600 next year.
The second thing about the comments from so many ordinary readers was their willingness to face up to and discuss openly the reality of the problem facing not just the Irish Navy and other rescue ships, but all of Europe in trying to deal with this migrant crisis.
In stark contrast to this, of course, is official Ireland, which is so constrained by political correctness that an open discussion of the issues involved never happens. For that reason, the issue of whether or not it's a good idea to have the Irish ship -- or any other navy ship -- sailing close up to the Libyan coast to pick up migrants is simply not discussed. The Minister for Defense Simon Coveney, who has been on national TV and radio numerous times in the past week, was never asked this question.
To be fair, he is doing no more than going along with agreed European policy. But this -- rescuing migrants from boats to prevent another tragic and embarrassing incident in the Med and agreeing, after a lot of difficulty, to spread 40,000 of the 220,000 migrants who arrived this year in Italy and Greece across other EU countries -- is not an answer to the enormous problem Europe faces.
The conflicts in Libya and Syria have led to over five million people being displaced, most of whom are in surrounding countries. Only a tiny proportion of them can afford to pay traffickers to get them into Europe, and those who can pay are usually not those who are most in need or at risk. Anyway, Europe could not cope with an influx on that scale.
Far worse than Coveney's reaction has been the meanderings of our pontificating President Michael D. Higgins, whose pious, politically correct waffle now drives many people here crazy.
We saw this again last week in a speech he gave to Amnesty here in which he failed to deal with a single aspect of the reality facing us on the migrant issue.
Migration is the greatest human rights issue of our time, he said. Europe's response to the mounting crisis in the Med has been "grossly inadequate and shameful.”
Higgins said that "leadership must be shown and governments held to account as to their human rights obligations to migrants and refugees."
Thanks Michael, that's a big help.