EDITOR'S NOTE (GRAPHIC WARNING): This story contains a photograph of a young boy who died, an image readers may find distressing. The image is lower down in the story.

The father of the Syrian child whose lifeless body, washed up on a Turkish beach, has been seen in pictures circulated around the world says he did his best to save his sons when their overloaded boat flipped in the Aegean Sea. But there was nothing he could do.

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother Ghalib, and their mother, Rehanna, drowned as they attempted to cross from Turkey into Greece on Wednesday.

Images of little Alan’s body, washed up on the beaches of Bodrum, Turkey, have focused sharp attention on the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

Abdullah Kurdi told The Associated Press that he and his family were trying to cross to the Greek island of Kos, but their inflatable dinghy was overloaded.

He said the water was calm when they set out in the dark, early morning hours Wednesday, for what should have been a four-kilometre, 30-minute crossing. But the boat was overloaded with 12 passengers and the captain.

Within five minutes of setting out, they hit choppy waters. Kurdi said the captain panicked, jumped overboard and swam for shore, leaving him in control of the small craft.

"I took over and started steering. The waves were so high and the boat flipped. I took my wife and my kids in my arms and I realized they were all dead," he said Thursday.

Abdullah later told his sister, Tima Kurdi, that he tried his best to keep the boys’ heads above water as the waves pushed them down.

Describing what he told her, Tima Kurdi said that he soon realized that his older son had died, and he had to let him go. He tried to save his younger son, but eventually it was clear that he had also drowned.

“They didn’t deserve to die, they didn’t. They were going for a better life. It shouldn’t have happened to them,” Tima Kurdi told reporters.

A second dinghy carrying another 16 people also capsized. In all, 12 people died, including six other children, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, which added that four suspected illegal human smugglers have been taken in for questioning.

Tima Kurdi said Thursday her young nephews “didn’t see a good life.”

“Two weeks ago, Ghalib said, ‘Auntie, can you buy me a bicycle?’” she said through tears. “I said to my brother, one day I’ll send you extra money … and you can buy him a bicycle.”

The boys’ mother, Rehanna, didn’t know how to swim and was worried about what might happen during the half-hour journey, Tima Kurdi said.

“I said to her, I cannot push you to go, if you feel like you don’t want to go, don’t go. But I guess they decided they wanted to do it all together.”

Abdullah Kurdi told AP he is devastated by the loss of his family.

"My kids were the most beautiful children in the world, wonderful, they wake me up every morning to play with them. They are all gone now,” he said.

"All I want is to be with my children at the moment."

Abdullah told his sister he plans to return to Syria to bury his wife and children.

“He said Turkey is not our country. They’re born in Kobani, and that’s where I want to take them,” Tima Kurdi told reporters at her home in B.C. “He said, ‘I’m going to be beside their graves.’”

The Kurdi family was trying to find a new home after fleeing fighting that began in northern Syria four years ago – before Alan was even born.

A journalist from the family's town of Kobani, Mustefa Ebdi, told the AFP news service that the family had been forced to flee fighting several times.

Ebdi spoke with a family friend who is now hosting Abdullah Kurdi. He told AFP the family left Damascus for Aleppo in 2012. Clashes there prompted a move to Kobani, near the Turkish border, before fighting there compelled them to flee to Turkey.

With Turkey overwhelmed by more than one million new refugees, the family decided they had no alternative but to travel into Europe, Ebdi said.

More than 300,000 people from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan have crossed the Mediterranean heading for Western Europe this year, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Almost 200,000 of them have landed in Greece.

As well, some 2,500 migrants have died or gone missing so far this year while trying to reach Europe.

Abdullah’s wish, according to his sister, is for measures to be put in place to prevent future boat accidents on the dangerous Aegean channel.

“He doesn’t want any families to drown anymore,” Tima Kurdi said.

Asked whether the Canadian government could do more to help Syrian refugees, Tima Kurdi called for global action.

“This is not just Canada. I think the whole world should help,” she said. “They’re taking a really dangerous route and I know why. They just want the better life, really.”

She hopes her brother, who is a barber, will move to Canada and work in a salon she owns in B.C. At the moment, she says, he’s insisting on laying his family to rest in war-torn Syria.

“I’m really really scared, I’m worried about him. I told him not to go back to Kobani, but he refused,” she said.

With files from The Associated Press