Some moments give pause for thought. One such moment was captured in the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month old daughter Valeria. Both are lying dead on the banks of the Rio Grande — the river that separates the USA from Mexico — two more statistics in the great movement of people that currently represents global migration.
The detail of the little girl’s arm inside her father’s shirt, clinging on in death as she had in life, was particularly devastating. Two more statistics whose dream of a better life was exploded within shouting distance of the Promised Land.
Naturally, public grief was surfed by political outrage. In the US, Donald Trump and the Democratic candidates in the next election fired blame at each other. Trump’s electoral success has, to a large extent, been rooted in exploiting fears over immigration. To him, this, the second biggest global challenge of the 21st century, is a tool to promote himself.
“They want to have open borders,” he said about the Democrats when reacting to the fate of the drowned father and daughter. “And open borders mean crime, and open borders mean people drowning in rivers. I hate it, and I know it could stop immediately if the Democrats would change the law.”
That’s clear then. The mass flight from poverty, war, and famine in the developing world would stop immediately if the Democrats, and presumably the rest of the western world, listened to Trump, the oracle on this issue.
Trump is a danger to democracy, but to lay blame at his door for the human cost of global migration would be convenient and wrong.
The challenges presented by migration are enormous and there is no simple answer. Nobody, for instance, is proposing open borders. The kernel of the challenge is to attempt to balance respect for human rights and empathy for the dispossessed while minimising major disruption in developed countries.
That is not easy and won’t be getting any easier as migration is bound to increase, particularly due to climate change. In such a milieu, some western countries find themselves at the interface of the developing world and favoured destinations. The USA is an obvious example.
But Italy and Greece are also under severe pressure, and, in the southern hemisphere, Australia. Currently, these countries and a few others bear a disproportionate burden in the migration crisis. As a result, the worst human stories — usually involving death —emerge from those quarters.
But what of ‘Ireland of the welcomes’? Can we in this country hold heads high and proclaim that we are putting shoulder to the wheel to do our bit in making a contribution? This country would never allow a situation develop whereby the bodies of desperate adults and children would wash up on our shores.
Public sentiment simply wouldn’t stand for it, or so we can tell ourselves, because the prospect of that happening is virtually nil. The Moral High Ground is a safe and dry refuge when you’re thousands of miles from the frontline. But how stands the record of this country in doing its bit?
Mixed, to say the least. Last Sunday, there was a nice little vignette about how some who fled in desperation have been integrated. At Croke Park, 28-year old hurler Zac Moradi came off the bench for Leitrim and scored a crucial point in the Lory Meagher Cup against Lancashire. He arrived with his family in this country in 2002, fleeing war in Iraq, completely unaware, no doubt, that Leitrim was not a hurling stronghold. His immersion in the national game and his achievement speaks volumes.
The year Zac Moradi arrived in this country, there was a record number of applications for refugee status, totalling 11,634, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Last year, by contrast, the number of applications was 3,673. The figures illustrate that the country is far from overburdened by global migration.
Direct provision continues to be a stain. In decades to come, it will, in all likelihood, be referenced in the same breath as the Magdalene laundries and other institutions from other eras.
Warm welcomes have been extended to many who have landed into communities up and down the country. But there has also been the ugliness of proposed reception centres being set alight. Malicious fires were set in Moville, Co Donegal, and twice in Rooskey, Co Roscommon, in the last seven months.
The attacks occurred against a background where locals were questioning the siting of centres in their communities. Some queries were legitimate but quite obviously the atmosphere prompted thugs to take action.
In the last few weeks, a number of stories have come to light that illustrate some disturbing attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees.
These examples are just a few that portray an Ireland that gives a qualified welcome to refugees. By no means are such attitudes universal across society. There are plenty of instances of individuals and small communities going out of their way to extend the hand of friendship.
There is also among a certain constituency an appreciation that this country has its own history of migration from abject poverty. It remains an interesting feature of the native vernacular that references can be made to ‘undocumented Irish’ in the US, while the undocumented in this country are often described as “economic migrants”.
Beyond all that, there remains in some quarters a highly questionable attitude to accommodating the most desperate. That should be borne in mind anytime there is an attempt to scale the high moral ground when assessing if we are welcoming compared to other wealthy counties.