You might think that because Ireland is far out on the western edge of Europe we are unaffected by the growing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Not so.
The number of migrants seeking asylum in Ireland has more than doubled in the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year. In one month alone over 700 migrants arrived here, prompting the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald to raise the matter at a government meeting a week ago.
In fact this spike in our migrant numbers has more to do with tougher moves in Britain recently against Pakistani and Bangladeshi people who overstay their visas there. Instead of going home again, these people are crossing to the north of Ireland and then coming south. If they can't stay in the U.K., Ireland and its generous welfare benefits is their next choice.
But although this is a particular problem, the growing numbers of asylum seekers arriving here is also being influenced by what is going on in the south of Europe as more migrants from North Africa make the perilous journey across the Med. As the pressure of the numbers increases in other countries like Italy and Greece, where most of the "boat people" arrive, and Germany, France and Britain, where many of them end up, it's inevitable that more of them will try to get to Ireland in the months and years ahead.
You will have seen the news coverage of the appalling events in the Med over the past few months as migrants try to cross from Africa in overcrowded leaky boats to what they see as the Eldorado of Europe. Hundreds of them have lost their lives in the attempt, including over 700 in one sinking earlier this year which prompted a Europe-wide search and rescue response in the Med to try to prevent a recurrence.
The Irish naval vessel the Le Eithne has been taking part in this mission over the past six weeks and has rescued almost 3,000 migrants from inflatables and old fishing boats so crowded and in such poor condition that they barely stay afloat. Ships from other countries have also been taking part in the humanitarian effort to prevent further mass tragedy.
Here in Ireland the TV news coverage of the various rescues by the Le Eithne -- almost 600 migrants taken off six inflatable boats in separate rescues this weekend alone, for example -- has been presented as us playing an important part in solving the crisis, something to be proud of as a nation.
And indeed it is something we can be proud of. But it is already clear that this is not the answer to the problem, and may even be making the problem worse.
The numbers of migrants being put out to sea in death trap boats by the people smugglers on the Libyan coast has soared over the past couple of months. It's still dangerous, but not as dangerous as it was before the international rescue effort started.
Now the migrants know they have a good chance of being picked up by the rescue ships and brought safely to Italy. As a result many more of them are taking the risk.
Ships from several European countries now patrol the Med every day and have been picking up migrants closer to the North African coast than ever. Our ship, the Le Eithne, rescued one boat full of people just 30 miles off the Libyan coast where most of the migrants take to the sea. One wonders what message this sends to the thousands of migrants waiting to get on boats from Libya.
The scale of the problem is immense, thanks to the suffering and chaos in Libya, Syria and other places in North Africa and the deprivation in other African countries further south.
Last year over 200,000 migrants crossed the Med, and that number is likely to be greatly exceeded this year as the numbers of boats setting out increases. By the first week in June this year more than 100,000 migrants had entered Europe, with over 2,000 dead or missing at sea. These numbers include all those who made it in the smugglers' boats to the Greek and Italian islands or mainland without having to be "rescued."
As we know, Italy and Greece are the closest countries and so they’ve been bearing the brunt of the migrant surge this year and last year. Both countries -- Greece in particular has its own problems -- are at their wits end trying to deal with the crisis, with 54,000 arriving in Italy and 48,000 in Greece in the first five months of this year alone.
They can't cope with any more, yet the other countries in Europe have done little to help. An attempt earlier this year to get all the EU countries to take migrants on a proportional quota basis collapsed in disagreement.
In the past two weeks, EU leaders have agreed in principle to take 60,000 migrants over this year and next year (40,000 from migrant centers in Italy and Greece and 20,000 directly from North Africa over the two years), but the detail of who goes where has still to be worked out and it's really not much more than a token gesture.
Meanwhile, the numbers arriving in Italy increase relentlessly. One wonders what might happen if the Italian authorities, instead of allowing the Le Eithne to land rescued migrants in Italy, told the Irish ship to sail back to Ireland with them? What would attitudes be here then?
Or in other European countries, if the Italians took drastic measures to move on many of the migrants left there by the rest of the EU.
What is happening in the Med this summer is disturbing, but it is only a small part of a much wider problem. We were all shocked when on one weekend alone, June 6/7, nearly 6,000 migrants were rescued from smuggler boats and taken to southern Italy.
But there are millions of displaced people in North Africa because of the chaos in Libya and Syria, so the numbers crossing the Med so far are only a small fraction of the bigger problem.
Several things seem obvious, even if they are not accepted in politically correct circles. The first is that people in Europe are very unlikely to accept an influx of migrants from North Africa that could run into millions if all those who wanted to come were allowed free entry. European politicians, wary of their voters, know this very well and that is why they are dragging their feet on the issue.
The second point is that the present search and rescue mission in the Med is not a solution to the problem and, as we said above, is probably making it worse. The sensible solution to stop the mass drownings in the Med is to stop the boats coming by returning the migrants who are rescued back to where they came from, usually one of a few well known small ports in Libya.
The only European politician brave enough to say this has been the British Home Secretary Theresa May, and the U.K. has refused to take part in the rescue mission in the Med. Returning the migrants could be done in a humanitarian way, giving them food, clothing and medical treatment before dropping them off. Very quickly the word would get around that getting a smuggler's boat out of Libya is not only costly but pointless because you are likely to end up back where you started.
Another way of dealing with the problem was suggested by Peter Sutherland, former attorney general in Ireland and a former EU commissioner and more recently a leading international business figure. He said that the EU should establish processing centers for asylum seekers from Africa in Egypt and other countries, and only those successful there would be allowed into Europe.
This makes sense because there is a large element of queue jumping in what is now happening. The street smart with enough money to pay smugglers are the ones who are now getting through rather than those who are genuinely in danger in and around war torn Libya and Syria.
Although the cameras tend to focus on families and young children among the migrants, the vast majority of those coming on the boats are young men and many are from as far away as Nigeria, Somalia and Eritrea. They are economic migrants who have paid criminal gangs to get them to Europe in search of a better life. You can't blame them for that, but they should not be allowed in under the guise of asylum seekers.
Interviews with migrants who have arrived in Italy and Greece confirm this. They all say they want to go to Germany or the U.K. or one of the other richer countries in Europe so they can get jobs and start new lives.
Understandably, Italy and Greece have little reason to stop them leaving for other parts of Europe. So we can expect the migrant camp of 4,000 young men at the French port of Calais -- and they are almost all young men -- to swell further as this summer goes on.
Despite being in a safe and successful country like France, they risk their lives trying to climb into trucks headed for Britain on the ferries. Why? Because the welfare system in the U.K. is better and there are more jobs there.
The smart ones will eventually realize, particularly as the tightening of the system in the U.K. continues, that they will have a better chance in Ireland. Here, anyone who arrives can claim to be an asylum seeker and the process takes around four years before all the stages and appeals are exhausted -- and even after that there are ways of fighting to stay.
This system makes a good living for a lot of lawyers and it's all paid for by the state. Like what's going on in the Med, it has little to do with helping people who are genuinely in need of asylum.
A final point about the migrant crisis in the Med is that the eventual answer to solving it obviously lies in finding political stability in Libya, Syria and other places in the region as well as in developing economic opportunity there and better living standards. That, of course, will take years, and in the meantime we will have this ongoing migrant movement across the Med to Europe.
It's a difficult problem. And no one, this writer included, has the solution.