Somewhere between Turkey and Greece, the boat carrying Abdullah Kurdi and his family was filling up with water. They wore life vests, and Kurdi was holding his wife’s hands, he later recalled. His children, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip, were seated nearby.
As the small boat began to sink, passengers panicked.
“My children slipped from my hands,” Abdullah told Turkey’s Dogan News Agency on Thursday. “We tried to hold on to the boat, but it deflated rapidly. Everyone was screaming. I could not hear the voices of my children and my wife.”
Abdullah swam to a beach on the Turkish coast, following the lights on the shore, he said. “I looked for my wife and children on the beach but couldn’t find them.”
By now, the world knows that his two sons and wife had drowned, along with nine other migrants. A photograph of Aylan’s tiny body washed up on a beach has gone viral, shocking the world and starkly illustrating the plight of those caught in the conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. These concurrent crises have produced the largest displacement of people since World War II.
By Thursday, the Kurdis’ tragedy had spawned soul searching among world leaders and politicians about the international community’s efforts to help the tens of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe and elsewhere.
The hand-wringing was most acute in Canada, amid initial reports by local media that the Kurdis had been denied asylum there, prompting their desperate boat voyage toward the Greek island of Kos. There were reports that Abdullah’s sister in Vancouver, who has lived in Canada for two decades, had tried to sponsor the family. But the sister , Teema Kurdi, later said she had not yet applied for Abdullah and his family and had sent them money instead.
Canadian politicians on Thursday stopped their election campaigning to weigh in on how their country could better assist refugees.
“Today, the question is: What is the origin of this collective international failure and what is our current obligation collectively to find answers?” said Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, who called upon the government to immediately fulfill a request by the United Nations to give asylum to 10,000 Syrian refugees.
“Enough is enough. We cannot continue to see these images,” he said.
Aylan has become the most visible symbol of the refugee crisis, but aid workers point out that several other children seeking a better life have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea or elsewhere this year. More than half of all refugees fleeing Syria’s conflict are younger than 18, according to Save the Children, a global relief agency. In the first eight months of this year, more than 11,200 minors landed on the shores of Italy, mainly from Africa. More than two-thirds arrived unaccompanied by parents or other relatives.
Death is becoming more common on these journeys. This year, 2,643 people have died in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. An additional 94, including Aylan, his mother and his brother, have died in the Aegean Sea crossing between Turkey and Greece. Aid groups do not know how many of those were children, but they say the death of minors in these perilous journeys is common.
“Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident,” said Francine Uenuma, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, referring to the death of Aylan. “This is not, by any means, the first time. It’s the first time it’s so visual.”
So much that Western leaders reacted with shock and solemn words on Thursday.
“What has drowned in the Mediterranean is not only the refugees,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a summit in Ankara. “Humanity has drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Erdogan has repeatedly called on Europe to help shoulder his country’s overwhelming burden: Nearly 2 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. The Turkish president insisted that he would not close the door to other Syrians fleeing their nation’s civil war, which has displaced or led to the deaths of roughly half of Syria’s population.
“The global security system does not function properly,” Erdogan said, adding that, as a result, the Mediterranean had turned into a “graveyard.”
Politicians in Western Europe mourned the Kurdi toddler’s death.
“He had a name: Aylan Kurdi. Urgent action required — a Europe-wide mobilization is urgent,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls wrote in a tweet that included the now-famous photo of a Turkish gendarme lifting the toddler’s corpse.
Still, despite the horror of the image and the desperation of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants attempting to reach safer ground in Europe, there are profound divisions on the continent over how to address the crisis.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country has become one of the focal points of the migrant influx, warned Thursday that settling so many Muslim refugees would have “explosive consequences for the whole of Europe” and would endanger the continent’s supposedly Christian identity.
Many Syrian refugees struggle to procure exit visas from Turkish authorities, meaning that the risky passage on rubber dinghies to nearby Greek islands is often their only route to Europe.
Teema Kurdi told the Ottawa Citizen that she had been paying rent for Abdullah Kurdi and his family in Turkey, but “it is horrible the way they treat Syrians there.”
Abdullah approached a gang of smugglers to take his family across to Greece. But in the first attempt, a coast guard ship stopped them and sent them back to Turkey, he told the Dogan News Agency. In a second attempt, the smugglers failed to deliver a boat.
Finally, he said, they decided to take a boat without the help of the traffickers.
On Wednesday, when he couldn’t find his family on the beach, he initially thought they had run away, fearing they would be caught by Turkish police. So he went back to the southern Turkish city of Bodrum, where the family had set up a meeting point in the event that they got separated. When his wife and children didn’t turn up, he said, he went to the hospital “and learned the bitter truth.”
He later went to the morgue to identify his family.
By then, Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir had taken the heart-wrenching photo of Aylan. It was about 6 a.m. Wednesday
“Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was lying lifeless face down in the surf, in his red T-shirt and dark blue shorts folded to his waist,” she told the Dogan News Agency. “The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard.”
On Thursday, Abdullah Kurdi was at the airport in Bodrum. He was taking the bodies of his wife and children to the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane, where the family had lived before they escaped.
“I’ve experienced the bitterest thing in life,” Kurdi told The Washington Post in a brief exchange when reached by telephone. “I’ve lost my family, and I have to bury them.”
Hugh Naylor and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.