Leo Varadkar was speaking in crowded UNHCR refugee camp Mai-Aini in northern Ethiopia. Here, thousands of people from Eritrea, a country under a totalitarian dictatorship, have fled in search of a better life.
Many believe that life lies in Europe and hope to travel there. Others are keen to find a home in the so-called ‘second country’ of Ethiopia.
The border between the two nations has only recently been reopened, leading to a flood of people across it, thanks to an open door policy on refugees despite the complex challenges it faces domestically.
Many of the men are avoiding compulsory and indefinite military conscription, there are also thousands of women and children following in the footsteps of their husbands and fathers, who crossed the border at a time when it was much more dangerous to do so.
It was Mr Varadkar’s first visit to a refugee camp and it gave him a “new perspective” on what needs to be done.
Asked by the Irish Independent whether he was disappointed at the attitude of some Irish people to our own intake of refugees, he said Ireland had offered a warmer welcome than most.
“Generally speaking, Irish people have been quite welcoming of refugees, particularly those who are fleeing from a humanitarian crisis and fleeing from a war zone,” he said. “They have been much more welcoming than people in other parts of Europe and that has been borne by our own experience of migration.”
But he said people’s concerns must not be dismissed.
“It’s important that we do not be dismissive about concerns on migration,” he said, noting this was a “political mistake” made by some in Europe.
“Migration is a good thing. Ireland has benefited enormously from migration. Migrants help to run our public service system, make our economy stronger,” he said.
“But it does need to be managed. We need to manage it right and see the picture as a whole, not just about responding to refugee crisis or humanitarian crisis, but the best in international development, peace, security. Those are the policies that work in the long term.”
The visit marked the final day of the Taoiseach’s week-long trip to Africa, during which he visited Mali and Ethiopia. In addition to meeting the new, young and progressive prime minister of the country, Abiy Ahmed, the Taoiseach also visited a number of projects supported by Irish aid.
Ethiopia has been Ireland’s key recipient of Irish aid and there has been a diplomatic presence there for 25 years.
But the challenges facing the country are myriad, including climate change, internal displacement due to conflict, poverty, economic disadvantage and severe gender inequality.
This enormous challenge was among the reasons cited by the Fine Gael leader for the need for continued Irish investment in development aid and economic investment.
But it was also the most effective way to address the migrant crisis. Europe cannot afford to take a 30pc chunk of Africa’s population, he warned.
“The best thing we can do is bring our experience in the European Union to Africa. Africa is an enormous continent and potentially wealthy. If we can get Africa right, we won’t need to see millions of people leaving their homes and trying to cross the Mediterranean,” he said.
There are also other issues at play; with, in his own words, power moving east and south there was a need to ensure Europe retains a foothold in Africa.
During his brief stop in Mali to visit Irish peacekeepers who are helping train Malian forces, the Taoiseach’s delegation travelled on a Chinese-built motorway.
During their two-hour meeting, the Ethiopian prime minister also spoke about the level of intervention by China there too; building roads, investing in the economy and also educating people in its university.
This is a “geopolitical” risk for Europe which must step up its education links with Africa, the Taoiseach said.
With that among other issues in mind Ireland’s investment in Africa and its military deployment to peacekeeping missions looks only set to increase.