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IMMIGRATION

Images of drowned toddler spark soul searching over refugee crisis

Spain called for a "fair" distribution of refugees among EU member states as heart-rending pictures of drowned Syrian children hit home the plight of refugees fleeing civil war.

Images of drowned toddler spark soul searching over refugee crisis
Syrian refugees arriving on the island of Lesbos. Photo: Achilleas Zavallis / AFP

Heart-rending pictures of a toddler's lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach sparked horror on Wednesday as the cost of Europe's growing refugee crisis hit home.

The images of a tiny child lying face down in the surf at one of Turkey's main tourist resorts has once more put a human face on the dangers faced by tens of thousands of desperate people who risk life and limb to seek a new life in Europe.

Wearing a red T-shirt and blue shorts, the child — identified as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi — is believed to be one of least 12 Syrians who died when their boats sank trying to reach Greece.

The bleak image spread like lightning through social media and dominated front pages from Spain to Sweden, with commentators unanimous it had rammed home the horrors faced by those fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

Circulating with the Turkish hashtag “#KiyiyaVuranInsanlik” (“Humanity washed ashore”), the picture made it to Twitter's top world trending topics.

“Tiny victim of a human catastrophe,” said Britain's Daily Mail, while Italy's La Repubblica tweeted the words: “One photo to silence the world.”

“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?” Britain's Independent said in remarks echoed in newspapers across the continent.

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council said it was discussing a draft resolution to address the crisis that diplomats said may allow an EU naval force to seize ships operated by migrant smugglers in international waters.

More than 350,000 people have made the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe this year, many trafficked by people smugglers from war-torn Libya, where nearly 3,000 migrants were rescued on Wednesday close to the coast.

Calls for change

France, Italy and Germany, meanwhile, urged a rethink of European asylum rules to ensure “a fair distribution” of migrants throughout the 28-member bloc, as tensions soared between European states over how to tackle the huge influx.

Spain has rejected the EU commission quota plan and said it will accept only 2,749 of the 5,849 refugees it was asked to rehome.

But Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told Germany daily newspaper Die Welt on Wednesday that Spain has “been ready from the start to welcome as many people as possible” but called for a “fair” distribution of refugees among member states.

In Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron's government has accepted a lower number of asylum seekers in proportion to its population than most other EU countries, tens of thousands of people signed petitions demanding change.

By late Wednesday, some 46,600 people had signed a petition urging the government to accept more asylum seekers, the number doubling in a few hours. Another garnered 135,000 signatures in four days, while a third raised more than 13,000 supporters.

The government is obliged to respond if a petition has more than 10,000 signatures, and if it reaches 100,000, the issue will be considered for debate in parliament.

The escalating migrant crisis has exposed deep divisions in the EU's policy, sparking friction between transit nations where the migrants arrive by sea or land and those where they hope to seek asylum, mainly in northern and western Europe.

In Hungary, which has been on the frontline of the huge wave of new arrivals, scuffles broke out between police and swelling crowds of migrants, numbering some 2,000, who had been prevented from boarding trains at Budapest's main international station.

“No police! No police!” and “Germany! Germany!” they chanted, some running forward and hurling plastic bottles as riot police pushed them back.    

There have been several tense encounters between the crowds and police following Hungary's decision to prevent migrants travelling west on Tuesday, after several thousand boarded trains bound for Austria and Germany the previous day.

'Europe's paltry response'

The situation is also becoming increasingly desperate on Europe's sea borders after a dramatic spike in the numbers of migrants leaving Turkey by sea for Greece over the past week, among them the tiny toddler whose death has caused such outrage.

A rescue worker from Bodrum identified the boy as Aylan Kurdi to AFP. Media reports said he was three years old.

Aylan was believed to be travelling with his family on a tiny boat built for four people but which was carrying 15 refugees, believed to be from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, who fled to Turkey last year to escape Islamic State extremists.

The toddler was one of at least 12 Syrian migrants who died, five of whom were children, including five-year-old brother Galip. Another 15 people were rescued.

The boat sank around 4:00 am (0100 GMT), close to the lighthouse in the Akyarlar region,” the rescue worker said, suggesting the boats had capsized.    

“Most probably they were panicked and many didn't know how to swim.”

The Syrians “almost certainly died as they tried to reach safety in Europe by boarding a smuggler's boat,” said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's director of emergencies.

“Instead they ended up as the latest victims of Europe's paltry response in the face of a growing crisis,” he wrote in an acerbic article.

POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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