A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of a migrant child after a number of migrants died when boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday. (AP Photo/DHA)

LONDON -- As hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived on European shores this year – and more than 2,600 have died trying -- Britain’s notoriously nasty tabloid press has led a crusade to keep them out.

The hugely influential papers have routinely portrayed the tide of desperate men, women and children as an invading army or as a marauding band of criminals.

The Daily Express has decried the “swarm” of migrants who are only trying to reach Britain to claim welfare benefits. The Daily Mail compared them to Hitler, wondering why British leaders could stop the Nazis but not “a few thousand exhausted migrants.” Kate Hopkins, a columnist for the Sun, wrote recently: "Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants."

Experts say the relentlessly negative tone has had a real impact on British public policy: Franck Duvell, a migration expert at the University of Oxford, said the press was largely responsible for “a public hysteria” that has contributed to the British government’s decision to allow only 216 Syrian refugees to resettle here.

But the tabloids dramatically changed their tune -- for a day, at least -- when a 3-year-old boy drowned in the Aegean Sea, and a photographer snapped heartbreaking images after the body washed ashore near a resort town in Turkey.

One picture showed the boy’s lifeless body face-down in the surf. Another depicted an ashen-faced police officer as he cradled the child’s tiny frame, still clad in a red T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. The boy was identified in news reports as Aylan Kurdi, and his family was reported to have been fleeing the onslaught of the Islamic State in their native Syria.

The photos, which circulated worldwide within hours of their emergence on Wednesday, played prominently on nearly every front page in Britain on Thursday. The tabloids coupled the images with urgent calls for action, demanding, without a hint of irony, that Britain’s leaders do something to address the crisis.

The Daily Mail called the situation “a humanitarian catastrophe,” along with a caption saying "the image could not be more harrowing -- but must be seen to comprehend the gravity of the migrant crisis engulfing Europe."

The best-selling Sun demanded in a front-page editorial that Prime Minister David Cameron deal with “the biggest crisis facing Europe since WWII.” It paired an image of the dead toddler alongside a picture of a baby born Wednesday at a Budapest train station after refugees were prevented from traveling onward to Germany.

The sudden turn in the tabs reflected the awesome power of images to change hearts and minds. But it was all too much for some readers, who smelled typically craven opportunism among editors sensing a shift in the public mood:

 

Britain’s non-tabloid press also displayed the images of the dead child prominently. Some reiterated calls they have been making for months for Europe to get serious about the refugee crisis.

Britain’s Independent had perhaps the most heartbreaking display: A full front-page photo of the dead toddler lying face-down in the sand, along with two simple words in red: “Somebody’s Child.”