A seasonal thought. It's just 200 miles from the Syrian border to Bethlehem, where Christ was born. It's just 300 miles from Aleppo to Bethlehem.
The young women with babies we see on the nightly news fleeing the bombs and the bloodshed probably look a lot like Mary and the Baby Jesus did. Yet here we are 2,000 years after the first Christmas and mankind seems as barbaric as ever.
At this time of the year we all think of family and home, love and kindness, helping those less fortunate than ourselves. That's what Christmas is about, after all.
So it is natural that our thoughts should turn this Christmas to the plight of the millions of people who have been displaced by the war in Syria, and particularly to those drowning while trying to cross the sea to Europe.
Last week the Irish navy ship the Samuel Beckett arrived home after 85 days on migrant rescue duty in the Mediterranean. The horrors the Irish sailors witnessed during their tour of duty in the Med is, they say, something they will never forget.
Of course we have all seen short TV news clips of migrants being rescued at sea. But they give only a glimpse of what is involved. A much more complete, and heartbreaking, picture of what frequently happens during these rescues was shown in a superb documentary last week on RTE, our national TV station. The hour-long documentary, called The Crossing, was made on board the Samuel Beckett during its recent tour of duty in the Med. It shows in graphic detail what the crew of the ship were faced with during their 85 days there as they tried to rescue thousands of migrants attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe in flimsy, overcrowded boats.
The Crossing is available free on the RTE Player (on www.RTE.ie) until January 11, and it makes harrowing viewing. It is visceral stuff, as boats founder, migrants panic, some end up in the sea (including children and pregnant women), some drown, and the desperate Irish sailors haul out bodies and try to save as many as possible with CPR.
Seeing this up close is very disturbing. One would need a heart of stone not to be moved by the terror and suffering of the migrants, and the humanity and courage of the Irish Navy personnel.
On the Samuel Beckett's first day of this 85-day tour of duty in the Med, six people drowned as high speed ribs from the ship went to the aid of a large group of migrants packed tightly on one flimsy inflatable. What happens all too often in this situation is that the sight of approaching rescue sets off a commotion among the migrants, their inflatable starts to flip, and some end up in the water before they can be transferred.
On this tour of duty the crew of the Samuel Beckett saved 3,090 migrants and recovered 12 bodies, bringing to over 15,000 the number of migrants rescued by Irish Navy ships since they joined the rescue operations in the Med in May last year (one of our six naval vessels is down there at a time).
We should all have justifiable pride in the Irish sailors and real sympathy for the migrants. But it's not as simple as that. Even at Christmas time some fundamental questions cannot be avoided.
Are we doing the right thing? Is the presence of our ships down there attracting even more migrants to attempt the crossing and playing into the hands of the people smugglers? Are we making the overall situation worse rather than better?
We are one of the few nations providing naval support to migrants in the Med. Other countries who could do this work, including major maritime nations like Great Britain, have decided not to be involved. Why?
Because they believe the presence of naval rescue ships is encouraging more and more migrants to risk their lives. Britain believes that, even though some lives are being saved, this is making the overall problem worse.
And certainly the evidence backs up this view. We know that the people smugglers are telling migrants that it does not matter if they are in an overcrowded inflatable because they are likely to be picked up quickly by a rescue ship. Which is why they can send out these inflatables crammed with migrants, with unreliable engines, not enough fuel, and little food or water.
The migrants have virtually no hope of reaching Europe in these boats. The smugglers give them a cell phone with the number of the Italian rescue center which will direct a navy ship to find them. The migrants are told to wait until they are well out to sea in international water before calling and that they are then likely to be picked up in a few hours.
But it frequently takes far longer than that because finding a small inflatable in the sea is not easy. It's far easier to miss them altogether.
Some of the migrants who feature in the RTE documentary describe the terror they felt when they realized that the smugglers had set them off on their perilous journey without the rescue contact number. The Irish Navy ship found that group by accident or, as they believe, by the will of God.
Many of the successful rescues have taken place within 20 or 30 miles of the Libyan coast. No one knows how many migrant boats have been lost, but those involved believe that hundreds, possibly thousands of people who we don't know about have drowned.
The majority of the boats used by the smugglers are cheaply made 25 to 30 foot inflatables, often with poor quality air chambers that start to lose pressure within hours. These inflatables often have over 100 people crammed on them so tightly they cannot move. Usually the migrants don't have life jackets, or the jackets are so poor they don't work.
Bigger boats are also used, usually decrepit fishing boats, hopelessly overcrowded on deck and below. On this tour the Samuel Beckett rescued 772 migrants from one wooden barge.
So is the Irish Navy doing the right thing? It may seem heartless and inhumane to be raising this question at all, especially at this time of year. The Irish sailors involved are true heroes. But one can have the best intentions and still be following a misguided policy.
Britain believes that the best way to help people fleeing the chaos in Syria is not by sending ships to the Med but by supporting the huge refugee camps in the countries adjoining Syria -- Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Britain is the second largest donor (after the U.S.) supporting Syrian refugees in the region and has spent well over a billion pounds in the camps in the last few years on food, tents and other aid.
There are over six million migrants in these camps and their needs are desperate, not just for food but for medical centers, schools, and so on. And it is the poor and vulnerable Syrians who are in these camps, people who fled their homes with little or nothing and do not have the thousand dollars or more the smugglers charge for a seat on a boat, even if they could get to Libya.
The migrants who do make it to the Libyan ports are those with money and street smarts, not the Syrians who are most in need. In fact the majority who are being rescued from boats in the Med are not from Syria at all, but from various countries in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. They may be fleeing poverty, oppression and violence, but they are not fleeing the war in Syria.
And as we know from the pictures we see of the crowded migrant boats, the vast majority of them -- around 90 percent -- are young men. They come not just from Syria but from Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and other countries, and all have dreams of a better life in Europe.
One can't blame them for this, but by risking their lives on the Med and gaining our sympathy by doing so, they are by-passing the legal ways of immigrating into Europe, or they are jumping the queue of asylum seekers in the migrant camps.
From Europe's perspective, there are other reasons as well why a policy of funding the migrant camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where millions of Syrians now live, may be better than spending money on sending navy ships to the Med to rescue a few thousand migrants every month. And it's not just a matter of numbers.
Supporting the migrants closer to home gives them a far better chance of returning when the war finally ends. It also avoids dropping them into a culture in Europe which may be alien to them.
This cultural difference issue is one that is often ignored by the politically correct here, but is very real nonetheless. We have already seen this in some cities in Germany and Sweden, for example, when large numbers of young male migrants have felt free to misbehave in what they interpret as a godless, permissive society where anything goes.
That is one reason why Ireland is trying to take in as many families as it can as part of the 4,000 migrants we have agreed to accept within the next three years. Progress is slow, although some 500 migrants will have arrived here by the end of this year, which is causing its own problems since we are in a housing crisis (we have already seen a confrontation in one provincial town when a migrant family was to be housed before a local family already on the public housing list).
Around 2,500 of the 4,000 we are taking are to come from Greece and Italy, which will help those two countries which are struggling to cope with the influx of migrants. But again this may be sending out the wrong message because these will be migrants who have come across the Med, effectively jumping the line back in the migrant camps in North Africa. It might have been better for us to agree, as Britain has done, to only take in migrants selected in the camps.
None of this is simple. It won't be solved by happy clappy do gooders at this time of year who want to help everyone regardless of where they are from.
Trying to do so may make us feel virtuous, but it won't do much for those who are suffering most as a result of the Syrian crisis, the millions of poor families stuck in the migrant camps in the surrounding countries. Bringing them all to Europe is impossible.
As far as the Med migrants are concerned, one wonders what the reaction would be here if all the migrants rescued by the Irish Navy were brought straight to Ireland instead of being off loaded in Italy? There is now a growing consensus in Europe that the best way of handling the Med situation would be to continue to rescue people, but to return them to a safe location on the North African coast, either in Libya or adjoining countries, setting up and funding migrant camps there specifically to care for them. It is likely that if this was done it would halt the flow of migrants across the Med, which is now claiming thousands of lives every year.
A Happy Christmas to all our readers.
Below is the full documentary “The Crossing”: