Patrick Logue: The little boy with sad eyes on the LÉ Niamh

Did he leave his family behind? Did he get to say goodbye to his grandparents, or had he watched them succumb to the water too?

The face of the little boy has been haunting me since he was photographed by the Irish Naval Service crew of the LÉ Niamh, who had plucked him out of the Mediterranean on August 5th. I think the child is a boy, although he is wearing a white Minnie Mouse T-shirt that you might often associate with a girl.

In another picture he is wearing a pair of red trousers as he nestles into a woman’s chest and is surrounded by other adults, presumably his family. In the first photograph that focuses on his face, you can clearly see the boy’s eyes welled up with tears and his bottom lip protruding slightly. And is it any wonder?

I recognised that look, the look of an infant who is just about to cry, as I’ve seen it in my own kids. Muhammad, I called him. Muhammad, to my eyes, looked like any little kid who is distressed or upset or who has been given out to for being naughty.

But this little fellow had just been taken from a fishing boat that capsized off the coast of Libya.


The tiny boat had about 700 people packed into it. Hundreds were rescued by the crew of the Irish vessel but hundreds more drowned in the Mediterranean off Libya. To add to the horror, it has since emerged that many people had been travelling below deck, having bought cheaper tickets for the perilous journey.Trapped there, they definitely had no chance when the boat went down.

People drown

I have been thinking about Muhammad. What had he witnessed on that day? How many people did he watch drown? Did he hear their screams as the boat keeled over? A child should not have to hear that.

What had he been through before he got on the boat? Did he leave his family behind? Did he get to say goodbye to his grandparents, or had he watched them succumb to the water too? Where is he now and what does his future hold?

Does he have any toys or a favourite teddy to snuggle with at night? Does he still have nightmares about August 5th? Does he still use a soother like my little fellow, or Harper Beckham? They'd all be about the same age. Where is he today and what is he doing now? I can't get him out of my head. And he was one of the "lucky" ones. He doesn't know what luck is. Luck is being born in Ireland, England, Iceland, Greece or the US. Luck is being able to grow up in the country where you were born with at least a chance of a decent life.

More trauma

He looked about four, but he has probably witnessed more trauma in his short life than any of us, and certainly more than any child I know. And yet he is just another statistic, another number in a news story before the world moves on.

Here is another statistic. Some 2,000 people have drowned this year trying to flee conflict, poverty, oppression and extremism to Europe. That's about the population of a reasonably sized Irish village – and that is only this year.

There can be no other reason to roll the dice on your life and your family’s life than to try to improve your circumstances and keep you and yours safe from harm. I would do the same.

And yes, we can't open the gates of Europe; and yes, we have problems of our own, such as homelessness and unemployment; and yes, the migrants' need to flee is sometimes born out of corrupt and dysfunctional regimes in their home countries. But remember, they are people just like you and I, our friends and families. What's more, the UN points out that many of the 137,000 are fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea and are therefore likely to be eligible for refugee status. In other words it is our responsibility to look after them.

When another tragedy takes place, and it will, the mental checklist in newsrooms around the world will be gone through. Where did it happen? How many are dead? What nationality are they? Is there an Irish/English/American/French angle? The information in the story will be entered into the imaginary (but very real) calculator of importance and the story will be given the prominence it “deserves”.

Muhammad, his family and his fellow migrants deserve more from us.

I’d love to meet him and have my kids meet him the next time they’re squabbling over whose turn it is on the XBox game. He could maybe tell them his life story so far and his hopes for the future. Surely life can only get better for him. My little fellow could tell him his daddy is going to buy him a dream catcher and Muhammad could tell him it will take more than that for his living nightmare to end.

Michael Harding returns on September 2nd