As in the rest of Europe, many people in Ireland have been deeply moved by the picture of the body of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey last week. As it happens, Bodrum is a place many Irish people know well since so many have been there on vacation. That could be one reason why the reaction here has been so strong.
To people here it was shocking and appalling that the same beaches where lots of Irish children have played happily in the sun and swam in the sea could be the scene of such horror. The body of an innocent little boy floating face down at the edge of the water seemed to encapsulate in a single image the suffering of tens of thousands of migrants and the failure of Europe to respond adequately to the current crisis.
This was reflected in the media coverage here last week, with columnists outdoing each other with cries of outrage and demands that EU governments act immediately to resolve the situation.
Many writers compared the picture of the little boy to the 1972 picture of a burned Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack, the iconic picture that played a major part in moving public opinion around the world to demand an end to the war in Vietnam. It was predicted that the picture of the body of Aylan Kurdi could have the same galvanizing effect.
Facile comparisons were also made in the Irish media between the mass emigration which resulted from the Irish Famine and the migration now underway from northern Africa to Europe. It was implied repeatedly that this supposed similarity meant that Irish people in particular should feel a special bond with the migrants in the current crisis in Europe and a special guilt that not enough is being done for them.
As always, the response of the Irish people has been one of wanting to help. And the Irish government responded to this in the past few days by saying that instead of the 600 migrants we have agreed to accept over the next two years, we would take in up to 5,000.
But the reality is that Europe remains divided on how to deal with the crisis. And what Ireland and some European countries are doing in response to the death of little Aylan Kurdi and to the migrant crisis in general is the wrong answer to a heartbreaking problem.
Much of the media response here has been an exercise in virtuosity. Commentators have been competing with each other to be the most virtuous and the most strident in demanding an immediate humanitarian response on a scale sufficiently large to solve the crisis, including all European countries accepting in very large numbers of migrants.
But it is far easier to be outraged and make sweeping virtuous demands than it is to deal with the complexity of a problem that is vast in scale. And it is far easier to adopt a "humanitarian" posture than it is to analyze the reality of what is happening now in Europe and ask some hard questions.
What happened to Aylan Kurdi is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy for which his father bears some responsibility. This was the family's third attempt to take a boat from Bodrum in Turkey to the nearby island of Kos in Greece (the first two attempts were stopped by the Turkish Coast Guard). These attempts cost several thousand euro, paid to smugglers, so the family was not destitute. Yet for some reason the father did not buy lifejackets for his wife and children.
The town of Kobani in Syria where the family came from has been a war zone for some time, familiar to TV viewers. But despite this, the father was able to bring the bodies back there for the funeral and burial.
It was also frequently overlooked in media coverage last week that when the tragedy happened the family were not fleeing for their lives from Syria, as was repeatedly stated in reports. In fact, they were among the million Syrian migrants now in camps in Turkey, where they were living in safety and where no one is starving, even if conditions are poor.
And the fact is that only those with enough money to pay smugglers are able to make the attempt. The vast majority in the camps who have lost everything and are destitute cannot do so. Which means that those who have suffered most as a result of the war in Syria are not those who make it to mainland Europe but those who are left behind.
The TV pictures of the thousands of migrants who were forcing their way through the Balkans, Hungary and Austria last week on their way to Germany show that they are well clothed and in good physical condition. They could have applied in any of these countries for asylum, as they are supposed to do under EU rules, but they did not to do so. They want to go to Germany and most are clearly economic migrants, as are many of the migrants from other countries who have made sea crossings from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and Greece in the past year or two.
The problem with this is that European countries, like the U.S., have rules about legal immigration. Migrants who do not qualify for asylum or as legal economic migrants and who force their way into Europe are bypassing the system. If this continues, it will completely undermine the legitimate procedures for gaining entry into Europe, and the big losers will be the destitute refugees left behind in camps on the borders of Syria.
Those whipping up feelings of guilt among people in Europe about migrants have also failed to highlight the scandal of the attitude of the oil rich Arab nations which, despite being in the region, have all failed either to accept migrants or to give any of their billions to improve the conditions in the camps around Syria. Saudi Arabia alone has enough wealth to transform the situation but does nothing.
The other thing that is clear from TV coverage of the migrants moving through Europe and those found in boats in the Mediterranean is that the majority are young men. If they were fleeing in fear of their lives and therefore deserve asylum, as many of them say when interviewed, where are their parents, wives, children?
Corvette "Barroso" of the Navy of Brazil rescued, on 4 September, 220 migrants in the Mediterranean pic.twitter.com/bxhlc2l7CH— SeaWaves Magazine (@seawaves_mag) September 8, 2015
The latest rescues off the coast of Libya last weekend by the Irish naval vessel again reflects this. The Irish ship picked up 329 people, of whom 317 were men, mainly young men. There were only 11 women and one child among the rescued.
Only the willfully dim now deny that this kind of operation is encouraging large numbers of young men, not just from Syria or Libya but also from countries across Africa and Asia, to pay smugglers to get them into Europe.
Germany has been very generous in its attitude to Syrian migrants, saying it will take in 800,000 this year. (It is not clear yet what they will do with the significant numbers of non-Syrian migrants arriving there.) No one is questioning the sincerity of this altruism, but the fact is that, unlike the U.K. or Ireland for example, Germany has an aging population with not enough children, so it needs young immigrants.
Germany has been lecturing the other EU countries asking them to also take in large numbers of migrants shared out on a proportional basis, with quotas for each country. But the reality is that the migrants are likely to ignore such quotas anyway and move to where they want to be, mainly the stronger economies of Germany and the U.K. Anyway, there is no sign so far of agreement among the European countries on how many migrants each country should take in.
Britain, the largest provider of aid by far to the camps around Syria, has now agreed to take in 30,000 migrants but is insisting that they will be selected from those in need in the camps rather than from those who are already in Europe.
This is a sensible approach and one that Ireland should copy. Most of our effort should be in providing food aid (meat, cheese, milk powder, etc.) to the camps, which as a farming country is something we could do very effectively.
The truth is that much of the reaction in Ireland and Europe at the moment to the "migrant crisis" is all about people here wanting to feel better about themselves rather than facing the tough decisions that need to be taken to help Syrian refugees, nearly all of whom are in the camps. Even if we could take all four million of them into Europe, which is not possible, we should not be doing so.
The conflict in Syria may not end soon, but like all wars it will end eventually. At that point the brightest young Syrians, many of whom are now forcing their way into Europe, will be needed to rebuild their country. In the meantime, Europe should be supporting them in the camps around Syria, with education, health services and so on.
We should not be fooling ourselves that taking in a few thousand, or even tens of thousands, is going to "solve" the problem. It may make people here feel a bit better. But it's a drop in the sea that claimed the life of young Aylan Kurdi -- and we are not responsible for his death either.