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With one photo, Europe's refugee debate changes almost overnight

The photo depicting Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, lying dead in the Turkish surf has spurred a European urgency that reports of hundreds of other deaths did not.

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    People hold posters with drawings depicting a drowned Syrian toddler during a demonstration for refugee rights in Istanbul, Turkey, Sept. 3, 2015.
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Nearly 800 migrants died trying to reach Europe in a single accident in April when their smuggling boat capsized in the Mediterranean. And nearly 80 died on land in August, having suffocated in the back of a truck near the Austrian border.

But it was not until the death of a single boy, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was photographed this week after it washed ashore a Turkish beach, that widespread public condemnation rose up against Europe's patchwork and often “door shut” response to the worst refugee crisis in decades.

[Editor's note: This story includes the photo, which some readers may find disturbing.]

In this week alone, people around the world watched as Czech officials scrawled numbers on migrants' arms to track them, refugees desperate to leave Hungary set out on foot for Germany after they were barred from outbound trains, and passengers were asked to listen for migrants atop Eurostar trains as they sped to Britain from France.

It was the wrenching photo of Alan, however, that reproachfully underscored Europe's failure to address the surge of people fleeing conflict at home – and could make this week a defining one for what Europe does next.

The image has already had a direct impact in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron, citing his country's standing as a "moral nation," agreed to take more refugees after months of resisting. France and Germany have signed off on a new plan that includes binding quotas for refugee distribution for most EU countries, at the same time the European Commission is preparing to float another relocation effort that dwarfs one that was rejected this summer.

“You wish this image never existed,” says Kate O'Sullivan, communications manager of Save the Children in Greece. “But it’s been incredible how powerful this one image is."

"There can sometimes be this fatigue around wars and large-scale disaster. You hear this number 800,000 or 800, or whatever it is. It doesn’t feel real to people," she says. "But then you have this image of one child, who is the most innocent child you can imagine, and it is representative of everything.”

Birgit Glorius, associate professor of migration studies at the Technical University of Chemnitz in Germany, says that images, especially Alan's, have played a key role in the support that Europe is suddenly seeing toward refugees.

“There’s been so much visualization of these [mass migrations that one can] follow people’s lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. And this has a lot of power,” she says. “Even though [the public] might not appreciate European politics, they are really upset if they see people like you and me, families, who are forced to take those dangerous routes just to get asylum here.”

A compassionate reaction

Indeed, it was impossible to ignore Europe's migration debate this week, from chatter among parents at a Paris playground to fervent debate across social media – including many railing against what they call manipulation and invasion of privacy in publishing the photo of the dead toddler.

Support groups for refugees have suddenly sprung up around Europe, and politicians have stepped up the pressure against each other and on far-right populists who have helped rally citizens around the notion of "fortress Europe."

Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to the BBC that “as a father, I felt deeply moved. Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfill our moral responsibilities.”

Though he has yet to give specifics, he announced that the nation would provide resettlement to "thousands" more Syrians currently in United Nations refugee camps bordering Syria.  

Meanwhile, on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande backed a plan that includes the obligatory distribution of refugees throughout the EU.

A similar European Commission proposal over the summer, which would have relocated 40,000 across most of the EU on a mandatory basis, failed amid resistance from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as concern from many other countries, including France.

But like public sentiment, the political mood has dramatically shifted this week. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted yesterday: “He had a name: [Alan] Kurdi. Urgent action required. A Europe-wide mobilization is urgent.”

As he gathered his ministers for an urgent meeting on the crisis Thursday, President Hollande said that: “We have proposed, with German Chancellor Merkel, a permanent and obligatory mechanism. What exists is no longer enough and there are countries ... who do not assume their moral obligations, so we will need to go further."

Their plan comes as the EU executive body is putting another quota plan on the agenda – and quadrupling its size. It is expected to be unveiled next week by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. It would include another 120,000 refugees in Italy, Greece, and this time, Hungary, on top of the 32,000 accepted by nations on a voluntary basis this summer.

Holdouts

EU officials are expected to face resistance in many corners, though, particularly in the ex-Communist states of the EU. Today Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are meeting in Prague to discuss their position, which has been to firmly oppose quotas.

Michal Vasecka, a sociologist at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, says that he doesn’t expect a dramatic shift in mood from society. Even if political leaders face pressure to share the burden, the views of the population are already polarized and set, he says. “We are deeply un-inclusive societies,” he says. “Migration reveals this unpleasant truth about ourselves.”

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and a Pole, could help shift the debate, reminding countries of how far they've come with the helping hand of the EU. "Fair distribution of at least 100,000 refugees among the EU states is what we need today," he told reporters yesterday as he hosted Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, one of the loudest critics of EU refugee policy.

"The countries that are not directly affected by this crisis and have experienced solidarity from the EU in the past should show it to those in need,” he said.

A Turkish gendarmerie stands next to the body of Alan Kurdi, who drowned in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, as he lies on the shore in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, Sept. 2, 2015. Nilufer Demir/Reuters

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