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Piercing the Denial on Refugees


Refugees in Hungary on Friday. Credit Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Photographs of a lifeless little boy, dressed in a red shirt and dark shorts, lying face down on a beach, and then, minutes later, cradled in the arms of a police officer, have taken the world by storm. These heartbreaking images of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned when the rubber dinghy that was to carry him and his Syrian family to safety in Greece capsized off the coast of Turkey on Wednesday, have succeeded, finally, in bringing home the terrible human cost of Europe’s failure to deal with a surging refugee crisis.

Reaction to the photos has been swift: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France issued a joint statement on Thursday calling for “a permanent and obligatory mechanism” to allocate refugees among the 28 member states of the European Union and for new reception centers in Italy and Greece. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, whose government has balked at allowing in any refugees from the Continent, said Friday that Britain would take in “thousands” of refugees from camps near the fighting in Syria. The Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, said his country would now accept the refugees who have been stuck in Budapest. Meanwhile, ordinary European citizens pledged to open their homes to Syrians.

The photos provoked reaction across the Atlantic as well. Canada, where the Kurdi family had sought refugee status, is looking into its own policies, and the United States pledged to intensify the clearing process for accepting refugees from Syria.

But this drama is unfolding in Europe, and it is far from clear that the European Union will be able to overcome the stark divisions the crisis has provoked among member states. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary blames Germany, which is expecting to take in 800,000 refugees this year, for the surge of people entering Hungary on their way north. Slovakia and Poland are refusing to accept refugees who are not Christian.

More than 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe this year, and about 2,500 others have died trying. Thousands are making a harrowing journey overland through Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria and Serbia in search of refuge, mostly in Germany. And until there is peace in the Middle East and Africa, more people will flee to Europe.

On Friday, the United Nations called on the European Union to take in 200,000 people under a binding emergency relocation program, and to set up large reception camps in Italy, Greece and Hungary. The European Commission must act swiftly to ensure that ministers meeting in Brussels on Sept. 14 to deal with the crisis respond to these demands — before the emotions triggered by the photos fade and more people die.

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