Editor's Note: The photos in this story may be distressing to some viewers. The original version has been updated to include additional details.
The numbers associated with today's migration crisis are huge: 4 million Syrians fleeing their country; 3 million Iraqis displaced. But it was the image of a solitary child — a toddler in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers, found face-down on a Turkish beach — that shocked and haunted the world this week.
The photo, which first appeared in Turkish media, sparked outrage, distress and no small amount of soul-searching. It was widely shared on Twitter with the hashtag, "KiyiyaVuranInsanlik" — Turkish for "Humanity Washed Ashore."
The drowned boy was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from Syria, part of a group of 23 trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. They'd set out in two boats on the 13-mile Aegean journey, but the vessels capsized.
Aylan Kurdi's 5-year-old brother, Galip, also drowned, as did the boys' mother, Rehan. Their father, Abdullah, survived. In all, five children from that journey are reported dead.
"The Turk [smuggler] jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and wife and we held onto the boat," Mr. Kurdi said, speaking slowly in Arabic and struggling at times for words.
"We stayed like that for an hour, then the first [son] died and I left him so I can help the other, then the second died, so I left him as well to help his mom and I found her dead. ... What do I do. ... I spent three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were all fake. ...
"My wife is my world and I have nothing, by God. I don't even think of getting married again or having more kids. ... I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms."
According to the Globe and Mail, the family, Syrian Kurds, had lived in Damascus, where Abdullah Kurdi was a barber, until 2011. After Syria's war began, they moved to Kobani, a city along the border with Turkey that has been contested between ISIS and Kurdish fighters and has undergone hundreds of airstrikes.
There has been confusion and conflicting reports about whether the family had applied for legal migration as refugees to Canada, where Abdullah Kurdi's sister, Teema, lives and works as a hairdresser.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, told NPR's Steve Inskeep the application had been denied.
But Canadian media, citing the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, reported there was no such application.
"There was no record of an application received for Mr. Abdullah Kurdi and his family," according to a statement attributed to the government.
An application had been received for his brother, Mohammed Kurdi, and had been "returned as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition."
According to the Globe and Mail, Abdullah Kurdi told Radio Rozana he'd paid about $6,100 to ensure places for his family on a 15-foot dinghy. They were among a dozen passengers making the journey in that vessel.
Bouckaert was among many who shared the photo of Aylan Kurdi on Twitter.
"What really touched me was the little sneakers," he says. "I'm a father of two boys myself. ... I realized that his parents had dressed him that morning for a very difficult journey."
Bouckaert acknowledges that "it's a very disturbing photo, but I think we should be offended that children are washing up dead on our beaches because of the failure of our politicians to provide safe passage ... rather than by the photo itself."
The United Nations estimates that some 2,500 people have lost their lives on risky sea journeys as they try to escape violence and repression at home. Like all numbers associated with the migration crisis, this one can be hard to fathom. But the message of Aylan Kurdi's photo seems clear enough: The world needs to do better in addressing migrants' needs, safety and dignity.
"We really need a wake-up call that children are dying, washing up dead on the beaches of Europe, because of our collective failure to provide them safe passage," Bouckaert says. "People fleeing Syria are legitimate refugees, and they should be welcomed in Europe and the rest of the world."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now we have the story of a Syrian refugee who did not make it as far as Hungary. He only made it to the waters off Turkey, which is where he drowned and washed up on a beach at the age of 3. A photo of this boy in red shirt and blue shorts has been widely shared on social media, and Peter Bouckaert is one of those who shared it. He's emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.
PETER BOUCKAERT: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: What did you see about this photo that made it significant to you?
BOUCKAERT: Well, I was one of the first to actually see the photo while I was working in Hungary with the Syrian refugees, and what really touched me in the photo was this little sneaker. I'm a father of two boys myself, and one of my favorite moments each day is to dress my boys before they go to school. And I just saw those little sneakers and realized that his parents had dressed him that morning for a very difficult journey.
INSKEEP: How much is known about his journey?
BOUCKAERT: Actually, a lot is known about his journey. They were from the city of Kobani in Syria. They had applied for legal migration to Canada because the father's sister was living in Canada, and they were denied. So their only option to join their relatives in Canada was to put their lives in the hands of the smugglers. Aylan was his name. He was age 3, and he died together with his mother and his brother on the sea. You know, I know it's a very disturbing photo, but I think we should be offended that children are washing up dead on our beaches because of the failure of our politicians to provide safe passage for them to refuge rather than by the photo itself.
INSKEEP: Were you comfortable spreading that photo around?
BOUCKAERT: No, I thought long and hard about sharing a photo of a dead boy, but I ultimately made the decision that Europe needs to see the picture and the world needs to see this picture. We really need a wake-up call that children are dying, washing up dead on the beaches of Europe because of our collective failure to provide them with safe passage. The people fleeing Syria are legitimate refugees, and they should be welcomed in Europe and the rest of the world.
INSKEEP: Do you think the world has not quite grasped the enormity of what you've been seeing?
BOUCKAERT: No, I don't think they have at all. I'm in Hungary at the moment where thousands of Syrian refugees and others are blocked from moving on to Germany and other Western European destinations that they wish to reach. They're sleeping out in the open in miserable conditions without the opportunity to watch. With very little food, the children are getting sick. And that's how we're treating people who are fleeing a war zone where we have been unable to stop this slaughter for the last four years. I met a man yesterday who said that he would have preferred to stay in Syria rather than live on the streets of Budapest. He told me, you know, in Syria, there's an explosion, and you die one death. Here, I die a thousand deaths of humiliation.
INSKEEP: Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, thanks very much.
BOUCKAERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.