Drowned toddler sparks fresh horror over Europe migrant crisis

Members of the Turkish coast guards holding a baby of a Syrian migrant on the shore in Cesme, near the Aegean port city of Izmir, Turkey, on Aug 11, 2015.
Members of the Turkish coast guards holding a baby of a Syrian migrant on the shore in Cesme, near the Aegean port city of Izmir, Turkey, on Aug 11, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) - Heartrending pictures of a toddler's lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach sparked horror on Wednesday as the cost of Europe's burgeoning refugee crisis hits 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 is believed to be one of least 12 Syrians trying to reach Greece who died when their boats sank.

"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.

As Europeans reeled once again at human cost of the biggest movement of people since World War II, top diplomats from France, Italy and Germany urged a rethink of European rules on asylum to allow for a fairer distribution of migrants throughout the 28-member bloc.

The call came as tensions soared between European states over how to tackle the huge influx of refugees and migrants, as thousands more arrived on the Greek mainland where more than 160,000 people have already landed this year alone.

Over the last week, there has been a dramatic spike in the numbers of migrants - mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa - seeking to leave Turkey by sea for Greece in the hope of finding new lives in the European Union.

The Turkish coastguard said two boats had sunk after setting off separately from its Bodrum peninsula for the Greek Aegean island of Kos early on Wednesday.

Among the dead were five children and a woman, while 15 others were rescued, the coastguard said.

"Do Something, David" said the Huffington Post's UK edition in a direct appeal to British Prime Minister David Cameron who has accepted a lower number of asylum seekers in proportion to its population than most other EU countries.

By Wednesday, some 20,000 people in Britain had signed a petition urging the government to accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugees. Where a petition has more than 10,000 signatures, the government is obliged to respond.

"The UK is not offering proportional asylum in comparison with European counterparts," it read.

"We can't allow refugees who have risked their lives to escape horrendous conflict and violence to be left living in dire, unsafe and inhumane conditions in Europe."

In a joint statement late on Wednesday, Germany, France and Italy urged an overhaul of European laws on asylum in a bid to ensure "a fair distribution" of migrants throughout the bloc.

"The current refugee crisis is putting the European Union and all of its member states to a historic test," it said, calling for a "more efficient asylum system for persons in need".

The question of how to tackle the soaring numbers of migrants and refugees has caused increasing friction between EU members, with several nations warning it was pushing the continent's vaunted "Schengen" system of borderless travel to breaking point.

Greece appealed for an "immediate" EU response to the crisis and urged the United Nations to become involved as two ships brought some 4,300 people to Athens, most of them refugees from war-torn Syria.

The government chartered the ships in a bid to relieve pressure on Lesbos, one of several Greek islands inundated by thousands crossing from Turkey in flimsy boats.

Fresh protests also erupted in Hungary, a key transit point for the huge numbers of people trekking from Greece through the Balkans in search of a new life in northern Europe.

Police at Budapest's main international station had on Tuesday blocked hundreds of migrants from boarding trains to Austria and Germany, triggering angry demonstrations, with the numbers outside Keleti station swelling to 2,000 on Wednesday evening.

"No police! No police!" and "Germany! Germany!" they chanted, some running a police line and hurling plastic bottles as riot police pushed them back.

"My friends got on a train on Monday? Why the hell don't they let me go too, all of us?" fumed a 41-year-old Syrian refugee called Ohlit.

Several states have warned the influx is placing the 1995 Schengen system at risk which eliminated passport controls between 22 of the EU's 28 countries, as well as non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

On Wednesday, Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said the Schengen zone had "de facto fallen apart".

There is additional friction over the so-called "Dublin" regulations under which refugees must file their asylum claim in the first EU country they reach.

Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 migrants were rescued Wednesday off the Libyan coast, the Italian coastguard and Doctors without Borders (MSF) said.

In a posting on Twitter, MSF said it had rescued 1,658 people in a joint operation with the Malta-based humanitarian organisation MOAS, while the Italian coast guard said it and the navy had saved 1,219 people, including 838 who were crammed onto three rickety boards.