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World & Nation

Drowned Syrian toddler embodies heartbreak of migrant crisis

Migrant boat accident in Turkey

Turkish police document the scene where the body of 3-year-old Aylan was found Sept. 2, 2015.

(Dogan News Agency / European Pressphoto Agency)

Heartbreaking images that emerged Wednesday of a drowned Syrian toddler’s body on a Turkish beach went viral, shared by thousands of social media users around the world.

The 3-year-old boy and his 5-year-old brother were reported by Turkish media to have been among 12 refugees who drowned when their boat apparently capsized while trying to make the short but treacherous journey to the Greek island of Kos. Later reports identified the little boy as Aylan Kurdi, and said the family was trying to find refuge in Canada.

Photos carried by Turkey’s Dogan news agency showed the child face-down on the beach, wearing a red T-shirt, blue shorts and sneakers with Velcro closings, and subsequently a Turkish police officer cradling the small corpse. Other images circulated widely on social media once the boy’s identity became known, including one of him smiling brightly with his brother Galip, an oversized teddy bear between them.

Europe is coping with an enormous human wave of refugees, many of them from Syria, and images of recent days have shown people struggling through gaps in border fences, sleeping in train stations or trudging wearily through fields. And the world was horrified last week by news that the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants had been found in a truck on a roadside in Austria, apparently suffocated.

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But even against this backdrop of dramatic suffering, the dead toddler’s photo struck a nerve -- and ignited debate over whether the grim and graphic photos should have been published online and in print. Passions were particularly strong in Europe, which is struggling to deal with the human tide of refugees and migrants, and in Britain, which has taken in a tiny fraction of those being welcomed by other wealthy nations such as Germany and Sweden.

The Land is full of martyrs The Seas wash up their share If human hearts refuse to give refuge Then to be human means nothing at all #Syria— Nafeesa Suleiman (@Feena94) September 2, 2015

The Syrian child drowned, while the world is drowning in shame. Whose soul really lives?— ¿¿¿¿¿ ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ (@AyeshaAlmazroui) September 2, 2015

A Syrian boy washed off the shore in Turkey after drowning ... If it breaks our hearts then we must blame no one... https://t.co/JB1jdomjMV— Dawah Man (@ImranibnMansur) September 2, 2015

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The London-based Independent newspaper published the photos together with a strongly worded editorial headlined: “Somebody’s Child.”

“If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?” it asked.

Human smuggling is a booming trade in and near the town of Bodrum, on whose beach the little boy’s body washed ashore.

Turkish media quoted a senior Turkish naval official as saying that two boats carrying 23 people had set off separately toward Greece from the Akyarlar area of the Bodrum peninsula.

The confirmed dead included five children and one woman, while seven others were rescued and two reached shore in lifejackets, according to Today’s Zaman newspaper.

The naval official said a total of 13 migrants have died in the area over the last two days attempting to reach Kos, while 457 have been rescued.

The small boy in the photos was one of six people from the Syrian city of Kobani, according to the Dogan agency. Kobani, near the border with Turkey, became a much-scrutinized symbol of the menace posed by the militants of Islamic State, who besieged its Kurdish defenders for months last year before being driven back in January with the aid of airstrikes by a U.S.-led military coalition. But thousands have fled the fighting there, many of them terrorized after Islamic State fighters earlier this year managed to infiltrate the town’s outskirts and staged chilling house-to-house executions in the areas they briefly occupied.

About 2,000 people per day are making the short crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, with thousands more crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. European Union states report more than 500,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, and 2,600 of them have died trying to make it.

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Turkish officials have criticized European nations for failing to deal appropriately with the crisis.

“European countries’ worrying approach to the flow of migrants has caused sorrow and it has been evaluated that the issue should be taken up in a basic human rights perspective,” Turkey’s National Security Council said in a statement, according to the Reuters news agency.

Turkey is presently hosting more than 1.9 million refugees from Syria.

UPDATES

Sept. 3, 3 a.m.: This article has been updated with the child’s identity and additional details and background.

Sept. 2, 9:07 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and background.

This article was originally published on Sept. 2 at 5:12 p.m.

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