A cartoon published in French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that depicts an imagined future of a drowned Syrian toddler as a groper of women in Germany has sparked a storm of criticism online.

In the cartoon, a man caricaturized as porcine runs with hands outstretched behind a fleeing woman. An inset shows a drawing of a photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a beach in Turkey and became a symbol of the plight of refugees.

The caption reads: "What would little Alan Kurdi have become if he grew up? A groper of women in Germany."

The caricature refers to events on New Year's Eve in Cologne, Germany, where groups of mainly North African men encircled, sexually assaulted and robbed women near the main train station.

People were quick to respond on Twitter and other social media as the cartoon began spreading. "Charlie Hebdo reminding us it's fine to be racist if you claim it's satire and scream freedom of speech," tweeted a user under the name Not Chris Taylor.

"I hope that one day there will be war in your country and you had to leave your homeland #racist #charliehebdo," tweeted a user under the name Mine Iseri, whose online profile said she was in Turkey.

But others defended the cartoon. "You mean to tell me people have taken a #CharlieHebdo critique of French racism as an endorsement of French racism? Again?" wrote someone under the name of Alex Rowell whose profile said he was in Lebanon.

Charlie Hebdo has been criticized frequently for printing cartoons seen as offensive, becoming a target for radical Islamists who say depictions of the prophet Mohammed are blasphemous. In January 2015, two gunmen who claimed allegiance to terrorist groups stormed the magazine offices killing 11 people, including top cartoonists.

One user named Claas Weinmann, whose profile says he is a reporter at Germany's Bild newspaper, wrote, "The cartoon hurts. But it holds a mirror up to those for whom Cologne is a result of the refugee crisis."

The events in Cologne and other German cities have triggered a political storm in Germany and increased tensions over the influx of migrants and refugees. Some 1.1 million migrants entered the country in 2015.

Three-year-old Alan, his 5-year-old brother Ghaleb and their mother Rehan drowned when their boat capsized off the Turkish coast in September.

Photographs of the child lying face down in shallow water where he was found by police caused outrage around the world and led to an outpouring of sympathy for Syrian refugees.

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