Family’s tragedy spotlights migration crisis

Gregory Katz
Associated Press

Ankara, Turkey — He is one among many, far too many. But the plight of one boy, washed up like a piece of debris on a Turkish beach, has focused the world’s attention on a wave of war-and-deprivation-fueled migration unmatched since World War II.

Aylan Kurdi, 3, was found on a Turkish beach in sneakers, blue shorts and a red shirt after the small rubber boat he and his family were in capsized in a desperate voyage from Turkey to Greece.

Aylan died along with 5-year-old brother Galip and his mother, Rehan, leaving their distraught father, Abdullah, to cope with his sudden, overwhelming loss. He said Thursday he wanted one thing and one thing only: to sit by the graves of his wife and children.

“My kids were the most beautiful children in the world, wonderful. They wake me up every morning to play with them. They are all gone now,” he said.

The photos of the 3-year-old also sparked a debate in Europe about whether governments were doing enough to get a grip on the refugee crisis. Thousands of migrants have died at sea while trying to reach Europe. Most deaths occurred in the Mediterranean.

The European Union is grappling with the biggest influx of migrants and refugees since World War II, many fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. Hungary has become a key transit country for people trying to reach Western Europe, and Germany in particular.

On Thursday, thousands of migrants surged into a Budapest train station when police ended their two-day blockade of its entrance, but the surprise move produced only a new swirl of confusion and anger as some migrants found themselves tricked into taking a train to a Hungarian camp for asylum seekers.

Abdullah Kurdi, 40, father of Syrian boys Aylan, 3, and Galip, 5, whose bodies washed up on a beach near Turkish resort of Bodrum on Wednesday, waits for the delivery of their bodies outside a morgue in Mugla, Turkey.

The question of how to defuse the human gridlock in Hungary was being hotly debated Thursday in Brussels at a meeting between EU leaders and Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban. Hungary, which for months had done little to prevent asylum applicants from heading west, this week has declared it won’t let more migrants deeper into Europe.

“We Hungarians are full of fear. People in Europe are full of fear, because we see that European leaders, among them the prime ministers, are not capable of controlling the situation,” Orban said.

Orban principally blamed Germany as he confirmed his government’s plan to send at least 3,000 troops to Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where police patrols, razor-wire coils and a 13-foot high fence already seek to deter new arrivals. Orban’s top aide, Janos Lazar, said 160,000 migrants had reached Hungary this year, nearly 90,000 of them since July 6.

A Canadian legislator said Aylan’s family, fleeing the conflict in Syria, had been turned down in a bid for legal entry to Canada even though it had close relatives there offering financial backing and shelter, but Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration later denied that assertion.

“There was no record of an application received for Mr. Abdullah Kurdi and his family,” the department said in a statement, indicating that a bid for another member of the family, Mohammad Kurdi, had been returned as incomplete.

Tima Kurdi of Vancouver, who is Abdullah’s sister, initially told Canadian media that the family had embarked on the perilous boat journey only after its bid was rejected. She later said, however, that no formal request for refugee status had been made on Abdullah Kurdi’s behalf, saying one was filed, and rejected, on another relative’s behalf. She also gave a different transliteration for the boys’ names, calling them Alan and Galib.

Different stories given

Accounts of events changed several times Thursday as information flowed in from several parts of the world.

Describing the tragedy, Abdullah Kurdi said the overloaded boat flipped over moments after the captain, described as a Turkish man, panicked and abandoned the vessel, leaving Abdullah as the de facto commander of a small boat overmatched by high seas.

“I took over and started steering. The waves were so high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and my kids in my arms and I realized they were all dead,” he said.

In a police statement later leaked to the Turkish news agency Dogan, Abdullah Kurdi gave a different account, denying that a smuggler was aboard. However, smugglers often instruct migrants that if caught they should deny their presence and it was unclear whether he had been trying to protect a smuggler’s identity in his statement to police.

The distraught father, who worked as a barber in Syria, added wistfully: “All I want is to be with my children at the moment.”

Men load the coffins of migrants and 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach after a boat carrying refugees sank as it crossed to the Greek island of Kos, at the morgue in Mugla, southern Turkey.

Abdullah Kurdi said the boat, headed for the Greek island of Kos, was only at sea for four minutes before the captain abandoned the vessel and its 12 passengers.

The route between Bodrum in Turkey and Kos, just a few miles, is one of the shortest from Turkey to the Greek islands, but it remains dangerous. Hundreds of people a day try to cross it despite the well-documented risks.

Tima Kurdi’s husband, Rocco Logozzo, told the Canadian Press that Abudllah Kurdi told his sister that both boys were wearing lifejackets when the boat capsized but that the protective gear somehow slipped off when the boat flipped.

He said the family had enough money and room in his home to have provided for their relatives in Syria but hadn’t been able to do because the bid was rejected by a system that was designed to fail.

The family lost all hope when the application was denied in June and made the “bad” choice to try to get to Europe by boat, he said.

In Britain, U.N. refugee agency representative Laura Padoan said publishing the photos of lifeless Aylan Kurdi, seen around the world, may bring a major change in the public’s perception of the crisis.

Images highlight despair

“I think a lot of people will think about their own families and their own children in relation to those images,” she said. “It is difficult for politicians to turn their backs on those kind of images and the very real tragedy that is happening.”

The tide also washed up the bodies of Rehan and Galip on Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula Wednesday. In all, 12 people drowned when two boats capsized.

They represent only a small fraction of the uncounted number of those who have died at sea in recent months as the conflicts in the Middle East have intensified.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said eight of the 12 drowned migrants were children. Four people were detained Thursday on suspicion of acting as intermediaries in the illegal trafficking, the agency said.

It was not immediately clear when the family left Kobani or what its movements were in Turkey.

Abdullah Kurdi said he planned to take his family’s remains back to Kobani for burial.

“I want the whole world to see,” he said. “We went through a disaster and I don’t want other people to suffer the same.”

Close to 2 million people have fled Syria for Turkey, making the country the biggest host of refugees in the world.