Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has criticised newspapers for their "absolutely disgusting" reaction to the death of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi.
The young boy, from the Syrian city of Kobani, was pictured face down in the surf on the Turkish coast in September. His 5-year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rihan, also drowned when their boat capsized on the way to the Greek island of Kos.
The haunting photos focused the world's attention on the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Many British newspapers printed the images on their front pages.
Mitchell said he believed the media's reaction was "phoney and manufactured" – because the refugee crisis had been brewing for a long time.
Speaking at the Orwell Prize launch debate on Wednesday, the Tory MP said: "When, in 2012, we [the government] realised what was coming down the runway, we did react and the press weren't remotely interested at all at that stage.
"This picture, this awful picture, could have been replicated three times every day around the Mediterranean for the last three years and we had The Sun, one of their journalists described the people coming as cockroaches, and then suddenly they were in favour of taking in more refugees.
"I personally found the whole thing absolutely disgusting in the way in which the media reacted. ... I just thought the whole thing was phoney and manufactured.
"I ceased to be international development secretary in September 2012. Before that point the media were not saying this is a massive crisis, but the DFID [Department for International Development] and the Foreign Office understood what was building up."
Mitchell said it was wrong for European countries to accept "hundreds of thousands of refugees" – and the priority should instead be stopping the Syrian conflict.
David Cameron has said that Britain will take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years from camps bordering the country.
Mitchell said: "I'm not against Britain taking 20,000 refugees at all. ... [But] the answer to this issue is not for Europe to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is to stop what is happening in Syria.
"There's no dialogue between the Russians and the British. There's quite good dialogue with the Americans but the British have decided they don't want to talk to the Russians so there's no dialogue at all."
He repeated his call for "safe havens" in Syria – protected by international forces – to prevent people from heading to swamped refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan or making treacherous journeys to Europe. "It is essential there are safe havens in Syria, particularly this winter, to protect people who otherwise would be on the move," he said.
Mitchell resigned from Cameron's cabinet in 2012 after The Sun reported that he called police officers "plebs". Recent reports suggest he might soon return to the government front bench.
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Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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