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US 'shocked' by images of Syrian toddler washed ashore

Officials acknowledge suffering of refugees at sea but defend low number of refugees accepted by US

04.09.2015 - Update : 04.09.2015
US 'shocked' by images of Syrian toddler washed ashore


The tragedy of refugees fleeing turmoil in the Middle East gained attention in Washington after images surfaced of a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on Turkish shores.

The story of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian who drowned with several other migrants trying to reach the Greek island of Kos, and the heartbreaking images of his body lying in the sand, was sprawled across the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Correspondents at the White House and State Department raised the issue at daily briefings and pressed representatives about the U.S.’s reluctance to accept more refugees.

“We were all shocked by some of the very graphic and heartbreaking images that we've seen from Europe today,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.

It has long been a matter of discussion that the U.S., since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, has accepted just 1,500 refugees. The figure is expected to increase to 1,800 by the end of the month, according to Toner.  

“How can the U.S. argue that it is doing everything possible to help these people when you're dealing, with such a small number of people who can be admitted,” asked one reporter.

The spokesman tried to defend the U.S. refugee policy by saying it is an expensive review process that could last 18-24 months before being completed.

“These individuals, these refugees, asylum seekers who are being considered by DHS [Department of Homeland Security] have to pass security background checks,” he added. “There're a lot of terrorist groups operating in that region, in that part of the world, and we need to make sure that, fundamentally, that we protect the national security of the United States of America.”

According to data by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 7.5 million Syrians have been displaced because of the five-year civil war, with the vast majority of refugees being hosted in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries in the region.

Toner acknowledged the urgency of the worsening crisis, reiterating the U.S.’s position for a political solution that excludes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But the lack of interest in UN-led talks that attempts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table seems to have forced millions of Syrians into the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the tragic images of the toddler circulating in media was “a stark reminder of the tragic and widespread humanitarian toll that violence and political instability across the Middle East and in some places in North Africa has taken on innocent people, including innocent children.”

He said, however, that he did not have an information about any decision by the White House to increase the number of refugees to be accepted into the country.

Earnest also acknowledged that the failure of Assad's leadership in Syria led to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

But it is no secret that the international community also failed to bring Assad to the table.

President Barack Obama threatened military action against Syria in 2013 if Assad crossed the “red line” and used chemical weapons. But he reneged on his pledge after it was found that chemicals were most likely used by the Assad regime on civilians, resulting in thousands of casualties. Instead the American president opted for a compromise that forced Assad to turn over all stockpiles of chemical weapons in exchange for not having airstrikes conducted against Syria.

Highlighting similar points with the State Department, Earnest commended European leaders for scheduling an extraordinary meeting Sept. 14 to discuss the refugee influx.   

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