ISTANBUL // Two Syrian people smugglers were on Friday sentenced to more than four years in prison over the drowning of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler who became a symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis when his body washed up on a Turkish beach.
The court in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum found Syrians Muwafaka Alabash, 36, and Asem Alfrhad, 35, guilty of trafficking migrants and sentenced them to four years and two months.
But it cleared them of causing the death of five people “through deliberate negligence”, a charge that carried a sentence of up to 35 years in prison, the Dogan news agency said.
Photos of the three-year-old Syrian toddler face down in the sand on a Turkish beach triggered global anguish and the public outcry, to a certain extent, spurred the EU into greater action in the crisis.
He drowned after his family decided in early September to make the risky journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece in an overloaded open boat.
Aylan’s mother Rihana and brother Ghaleb, 4, and two others also died in the same accident as they attempted the crossing from Bodrum to the island of Kos.
Aylan’s father Abdullah, who survived and returned to Syria, was accused by Turkish authorities of being responsible for the deaths. They later
dropped the legal proceedings against him.
A lawyer for the defendants, Kemal Ertugrul, said the pair would not have been jailed if they were Turkish and raised the accusations against Mr Kurdi.
“There is one name missing from the real organisers and culprits,” he said. “Nobody is looking for him. All the witnesses and those who experienced the disaster said the organiser is Abdullah Kurdi. Therefore I will file a criminal complaint against him.”
Mr Kurdi’s family, many of whom are now based in Canada, had previously rubbished similar allegations against him as ridiculous.
The sentencing of the two men came as European Union head Donald Tusk met Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on how to stem the massive flow of migrants into Europe.
Speaking in Istanbul on Thursday, Mr Tusk warned economic migrants against trying to enter the EU along with refugees and suggested that the could be could be shipped back to Turkey from Greece to “break the business model” of people smugglers.
The EU and Turkey will hold a summit in Brussels on Monday to discuss ways to stop the flow of migrants.
Experts agree that smashing the smuggling rings that have operated in Turkey for months with apparent impunity is key to solving the crisis.
“The EU has seen few improvements in Turkey’s control of the vast mafia networks that channel refugees,” wrote Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, estimating traffickers earned at least US$2.2 billion (Dh8bn) in 2015.
Turkey has become the major hub for Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Eritrean and other refugees and migrants seeking to make the risky crossing to Greece in a flow that has caused huge alarm across Europe.
The Turkish government struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the flow of refugees, in return for €3bn (12.1bn) in financial assistance.
But the deal and wintry weather in the Mediterranean do not appear to have deterred the migrants, with people still arriving on the Greek islands daily.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, 125,819 people crossed the Aegean from Turkey to Greece this year, but arrivals have been below average so far this month, with 2,771 recorded.
However, Greece is struggling to deal with the build-up of thousands of migrants on its border with Macedonia which, along with other states that migrants pass through en route to more affluent European nations, recently imposed border controls.
The sheer scale of the crisis was underscored by Eurostat figures showing the number of asylum applications in 2015 was doubled that of 2014.
Of the 1,255,600 first-time asylum seekers last year, Syrians fleeing the civil war were the largest group, numbering nearly 363,000, followed by 178,200 Afghans and 121,500 Iraqis, the EU’s statistics agency said on Friday.
Separate EU figures showed that an average of 1,943 people were still crossing to Greece every day in February, way above what Brussels wants.
“We need to see the flows from Turkey drastically down soon,” EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said as he unveiled the bloc’s new “road map” for Schengen.
The plan calls for the end of temporary border controls reintroduced by several member states and the restoration by the end of 2016 of full free travel across the 26-country Schengen zone.
Brussels also called for the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer and for countries to stop “waving through” migrants, many of whom want to get to Germany.
The EU estimates that if the Schengen collapses and border controls return it could cost the bloc between €5bn and €18bn a year.
* Agence France-Presse