EU squabbles over refugees

The father of a drowned Syrian toddler whose fate shocked the world has returned home to bury his family as European ministers tried to thrash out differences on binding refugee quotas to ease the crisis.

Britain said on Friday it would take thousands more from refugee camps on the Syrian border as the heartbreaking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach ramped up pressure on political leaders to act.

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His father Abdullah Kurdi – who has told how Aylan and his other young son Ghalib “slipped through my hands” when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea – arrived in the Syrian flashpoint border town of Kobane with the funeral caskets of his sons and wife Rehan, who also died.

A divided Europe faces growing international criticism over its response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, during which more than 350,00 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean, and around 2600 people have died.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that the EU faced a “defining moment” after little Aylan’s death and called for the mandatory resettlement of 200,000 refugees by EU states.

With tensions growing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday they had agreed the EU should now require member states to take in a fixed number of migrants.

EU foreign ministers were to meet later in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis, which has split the bloc between countries such as Germany advocating greater solidarity and mainly eastern nations such as Hungary that have taken a hardline approach.

Under-fire British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country has been accused of failing to help shoulder the burden, said he would set out plans next week for his country to take “thousands more” refugees.

“I can announce that we will do more, providing resettlement for thousands more Syrian refugees,” Cameron said in Lisbon.

However, he insisted that Britain would take refugees direct from camps on the border with Syria and not those already in other EU member states, saying that would just encourage more people to make the journey to Europe.

Disagreements are rife over Europe’s piecemeal migration system and its passport-free Schengen area.

EU rules that asylum claims must be dealt with in the country they first arrive were thrown into turmoil by Germany, which said it will refrain from deporting Syrians.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed quotas for resettling a total of 160,000 refugees across the EU to take the pressure off the overstretched frontline states of Greece, Italy and Hungary.

In Budapest, a tense stand-off continued between police and hundreds of refugees blocked by police from carrying on their train journey west towards Germany, Europe’s main destination.

The European tensions erupted into the open on Thursday when Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban lashed out at Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, for aggravating the crisis.

Orban, whose government has built a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out migrants, also sparked anger by warning that Europe’s Christian roots were at risk and saying Hungary did not want Muslim migrants.

The human cost of the migrant crisis has been brought into sharp focus by Aylan’s drowning, and the images of the child’s lifeless body, in a T-shirt, shorts and shoes, lying on the beach.

The picture sent shock waves across social media and prompted a furious reaction from, among others, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused European leaders of turning the Mediterranean into a “cemetery”.

Turkey is host to 1.8 million refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a long standing ally of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, said Europe’s migrant crisis was an “absolutely expected” result of the West’s policies in the Middle East and that he had personally warned of the consequences.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott meanwhile said the images of Aylan showed the need to stop the “evil trade” of people smuggling boats, defending Canberra’s own hardline immigration policies.

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