By Danny Kemp with Peter Murphy in Budapest | AFP
BRUSSELS, Belgium, 3 September 2015
Harrowing pictures of a drowned Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach brought home the horror of the escalating refugee crisis Thursday as Europe was accused of letting the Mediterranean become a “cemetery” for migrants.
Ugly scenes erupted meanwhile in Hungary as migrants refused to get off a train to be moved to a camp, prompting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to lash out at Germany over its handling of the spiralling situation.
Europe remained deeply divided over the response to the worst crisis of its kind since World War II, despite the heartbreaking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead in the surf after the boat taking his family to Greece sank.
“I was holding my wife’s hand. But my children slipped through my hands. We tried to cling to the small boat, but it was deflating. It was dark and everyone was screaming,” his grieving father Abdullah Kurdi told Turkey’s Dogan news agency of the sinking.
On a visit to Greece, which has seen the largest number of migrant arrivals in the EU, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said Europe was facing an “unprecedented humanitarian and political crisis”.
In scenes that underscore the desperation of the migrants, hundreds rushed Budapest’s reopened international railway station to catch a train only to to be left feeling tricked as police halted it on the way to the Austrian border.
A large number refused orders to get off the train after it was halted at Biscke near one of Hungary’s four main refugee camps, with some protesting, shouting “Germany! Germany!” and holding placards saying “Help” and “SOS”.
A German problem
“The problem is not a European problem, the problem is a German problem,” right-wing Hungarian premier Orban, whose country has seen some 50,000 enter the country in August alone, said after talks in Brussels.
Orban said German Chancellor Angela Merkel had insisted that no refugees could leave Hungary without being registered there first, in line with “clear-cut” EU rules that asylum seekers’ claims must be dealt with by their initial country of entry.
Berlin said last month it would not deport people who broke that rule but Budapest says that this has encouraged migrants to come through its country.
With tensions growing, France and Germany said they had agreed that the EU should now impose binding quotas on the numbers that member states should take in, having failed to reach such a deal in June.
“We agree that… we need binding quotas within the European Union to share the burden. That is the principle of solidarity,” Merkel told reporters during a visit in the Swiss capital.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will next week unveil a plan for the relocation of at least 120,000 more refugees to ease the burden on frontline Greece, Italy and Hungary, a European source told AFP.
EU president Donald Tusk also called on member states Thursday to share the resettlement of at least 100,000 refugees — far above the current agreement on 32,000.
Former Polish premier Tusk also took Orban to task for saying in a German daily that the EU’s failing immigration policy meant that “Europe’s Christian culture is barely able to uphold Europe’s own Christian values”.
“Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean (showing)… humanity to our brothers,” Tusk said.
In Britain, which has accepted just 216 Syrian refugees, Prime Minister David Cameron promised the country would fulfil its “moral responsibilities” but resisted growing pressure at home and abroad to accept a bigger share of Syrian refugees.
Pressure for action was heightened by the images of the drowned child, seen in photos in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and shoes and lying motionless on the seashore before a rescue worker picks up his limp body.
Reports said the child — one of at least 12 Syrians who died when their boats sank trying to reach Greece — and his family were trying to get to Canada from the Syrian flashpoint of Kobane after fleeing to Turkey last year to escape Islamic State extremists.
The bleak image spread like lightning through social media and dominated front pages.
“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.”
It also prompted a furious reaction from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who blamed EU states for the death of every single migrant who perished on the journey to Europe to escape war and poverty.
“European countries, which turned the Mediterranean Sea — the cradle of ancient civilisations — into a migrant cemetery are party to the crime that takes place when each refugee loses their life,” he said in a speech.
Turkey is hosting 1.8 million refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Europe is facing a huge influx on all sides, with more than 350,000 people crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats this year alone, the International Organisation for Migration says.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc’s new naval mission could step up action against people smugglers in the Mediterranean within weeks, seizing and destroying smugglers’ boats.
In the Czech Republic, police were criticised for marking the hands of refugees with numbers after detaining them on a train, in a grim echo of Nazi Germany’s practice of marking the arms of concentration camp prisoners.