A photo, a turning point? All depends on Europe's leaders

  • Angela Charlton and Lorne Cook, AP, Paris
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2015 11:39 IST
A young migrant, who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, lies on the shore in the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey. (Reuters Photo)

The 3-year-old boy Aylan Kurdi could have been dressed for preschool. Instead he was lying face down in the surf.

Suddenly offers of money, meals and refuge are pouring in to help the hundreds of thousands of migrants surging into Europe. A single photo of a lifeless boy did more to galvanize public sympathy for Europe's migrants than thousands of drownings in the Mediterranean or four years of Syrian civil war.

Whether Aylan's drowning death marks a turning point in Europe's migration crisis depends on what European politicians do in response. So far, no dramatic new solutions have emerged.

Given the EU's cumbersome structure and powerful national interests among its 28 members, any political change will be slow - if it happens at all. Ideological divides run deep, and suspicion of immigrants simmers.

Yet for many people from London to Athens to San Francisco, something clicked on Thursday. There will be a before and an after, a collective memory of the image of a 3-year-old on a Turkish beach, that moment when the migrants' plight became tangible and unjustifiably cruel.

Sweden's foreign minister cried on national television. So did Australia's most popular TV personality.

They were not alone. Tweets in a dozen languages shared pain and anger elicited by viewing the photo of Aylan, taken by a Turkish news agency and spread to cellphones and front pages the world around.

Many have taken action, too.

Parisians unexpectedly packed a meeting hall to offer rooms to refugees. A little-known French grassroots group trying to find housing for asylum applicants had 200 room offers Tuesday; by Thursday night it had 500.

Donors from around the world flooded the UN refugee agency with offers of aid.

"The image ... has started a movement of civil society, of private individuals, and even of the tabloid press, to say: 'Governments, we need to do more,'" said agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.

"Our private-sector fundraising people are inundated with requests, 'How can we help? How can we donate money?'" she said, adding that she didn't have a precise figure yet but "it's in the millions."

Read:Artists mourn Syrian toddler's death, post their tributes

European decision-makers heard the calls, convened meetings and insisted they are not soulless bureaucrats. Germany and France urged faster action on a relatively modest plan to force all EU members to take in a certain number of migrants.

But not everyone shed tears upon learning that Aylan, his mother and 5-year-old brother drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Greece. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Europe should tell Syrian refugees "Please don't come!"

Speaking to the European Parliament, he continued, "Why do you have to go from Turkey to Europe? Turkey is a safe country. Stay there, it's risky to come. We can't guarantee that you will be accepted here."

France's popular far-right leader Marine Le Pen said Europe should never have let its doors stay open to migrants in the first place. The EU's top diplomat summed up the realpolitik mood in Brussels. Asked about the photo, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, "As a human being, this is something that touches. But ... I'm a little bit fed up that politicians are called to react emotionally. "Our job," she said, "is to take decisions rationally, being consistent and coherent with our emotions." One political cartoon Friday showed a boy dead in the water with a lifesaver floating nearby, painted with the yellow stars and blue field of the EU flag. That's how many view Europe's failure to take bold steps amid its worst refugee crisis since World War II - especially as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have taken in more than 3.7 million Syrians while European governments argue about where to put 40,000 refugees.

After hundreds of migrants died in an overcrowded boat that capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013, European officials swore such horrors must stop.

This year, after another 800 people drowned in the Mediterranean in April, European Parliament President Martin Schulz had a sense of deja vu.

"Every single life lost off our coasts is a stain on Europe," he said. "Each time a refugee boat sinks, with people screaming, shouting and drowning, we swear 'Never again.' We hold minutes of silence. We lay wreaths. We promise that this time must be the turning point. And then ..."

And then, five months later, a boy's small body washes up on a Turkish beach.

Read:Drowned Syrian toddler's aunt fights to bring family to Canada

Images of drowned Syrian child spark horror over Europe migrant crisis

My family died in my arms, one by one: Aylan Kurdi's father

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