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Canada’s Prime Minister Refuses To Take Additional Refugees After Backlash Over Drowned Syrian Boy

Facing public outrage after initial reports that Canada had refused refuge to Alan Kurdi, Canadian authorities said they had never received an asylum request for the boy or his family. Alan's uncle was rejected for an 'incomplete' application.

by Justin Ling
Sep 3 2015, 4:15pm

Abdullah Kurdi. Mehmet Can Meral/AP

Canada's prime minister is refusing to increase the number of refugees admitted to the country, even amid international backlash over the plight of Alan Kurdi, a boy who drowned after his makeshift ferry capsized off the coast of Turkey while trying to get to Canada.

News emerged Wednesday night that the toddler and his family had been refused entry into Canada, but on Thursday relatives clarified that it was Alan's aunt and uncle, and their children, who had been denied refugee status by Canadian authorities.

Alan, his five-year-old brother, and his mother all died while trying to flee from Turkey to a remote Greek island. Only their father, Abdullah, survived. The family was displaced from their home in Kobane, Syria, after intense fighting between the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish militias.

The public outrage over the boy's death prompted Canada's immigration minister to suspend his re-election bid as he faces a bevy of criticism for failing to take in more refugees displaced by fighting in Syria, and pushed Canada's election campaign to sharply turn its attention towards the emerging refugee crisis.

At a campaign stop in British Columbia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered teary-eyed condolences for the Kurdi family, but rejected calls to do more.

One protester, sporting a shirt with 'Aylan should be here' written across it, was arrested by Harper's security detail before the event began. He contacted VICE News from a holding cell to say that he was facing charges of resisting arrest and disturbing the peace.

"We could drive ourselves crazy with grief if we look at the millions of people in danger," Harper said at the campaign stop. "We do what we can do to help."

Harper insisted that, per capita, Canada is doing more than any other country to help Syrian refugees — a claim not supported by any available data.

The prime minister honed in on his opponents during the event, attacking them for opposing the military mission against IS, arguing that ending the cause of the displacement is the only way to truly fix the refugee crisis.

He called resettling refugees a "small piece" of the solution.

Harper's government has promised to admit just 20,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria by 2020, a fraction of what his opponents are promising, and a number dwarfed by the commitments of countries like Germany, who will admit 800,000 refugees this year alone.

Canada has accepted just 2,500 Syrian refugees since the crisis began, while rejecting scores more, like the Kurdi family. There are currently more than four million registered refugees from Syria alone.

When VICE interviewed Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander earlier this year, he said that there were "close to 10,000 applications in process" from Syrian refugees. That raises the specter that Kurdi may not be the first, nor the last, to die while awaiting entry to Canada, or after being refused it.

Alan Kurdi is removed from a beach/AP

Fatima Kurdi, Alan's aunt, had tried to sponsor her older brother, Mohammad — Alan's uncle — to join her in British Columbia. Mohammad's application was rejected, she says, because it lacked a Turkish work permit that Mohammad believed was unnecessary.

A spokesperson for Canada's immigration ministry said the application "was returned as it was incomplete as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition."

Fatima said she planned on bringing Alan's family to Canada once Mohammad had been resettled. Once the application was rejected, those plans were abandoned.

Asked if she blames the Canadian government, Fatima responded: "Yes."

As the image of Kurdi's body, face-down on the beach, quickly became symbolic for the plight facing the scores of refugees in the area, there was initially confusion about which of the brothers, Abdullah or Mohammad, was sponsored by Fatima.

Related: Shocking Images of Drowned Boy Spark Anger as Europe Disagrees Over Migrant Crisis

Fatima's sponsorship attempt had the help of Fin Donnelly, her local member of parliament. Together, they wrote a letter to ask the minister to fast-track and approve the requests.

"I delivered the letter to the minister, and nothing. We waited, and waited, and we didn't have any action," Donnelly told CBC News. While that letter went unanswered, the Kurdi application was denied. Fatima learned about Alan's death like the rest of the world — from seeing the images of his corpse.

The boys' father has called on the world to act to address this problem.

An uncle of the boys, who lives in Canada, has blasted the Canadian immigration system, telling the Canadian Press that there was no reason to reject the family's refugee applications — there was lodging and support for them in Canada.

The Canadian Council on Refugees (CCR) took aim at the Canadian government for its ineffectiveness.

"These small boys could be alive today, if Canada had responded more appropriately to the Syrian refugee crisis," said Loly Rico, President of the CCR, in a statement. "We shouldn't need to wait for a tragedy like this to realize we must open our doors. We call on an urgent basis for Syrians with family in Canada to be allowed to travel here immediately and complete processing in Canada where they can be safe."

The news of the Kurdis' failed refugee application came just after Alexander appeared on CBC television to defend his government's record on resettling the scores of displaced Syrian refugees. His appearance, which saw him butt heads with his fellow panelists and the host, was quickly billed as disastrous.

On Thursday morning, Alexander suspended his re-election campaign and vowed to get back to work on helping refugees resettle in Canada. 

"I am meeting with officials to ascertain both the facts of the case of the Kurdi family and to receive an update on the migrant crisis," Alexander said in a statement.

Defense minister Jason Kenney also cancelled an event in Toronto that was intended to unveil new measures to tighten immigration security.

The opposition New Democratic and Liberal parties have skewered the Conservatives' record on the file, accusing them of falling down on the job.

"It's just unbearable that we're doing nothing," NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told a crowd on Thursday morning. He vowed to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees immediately, and then begin work on doing more.

While Mulcair avoided attacking Alexander directly, he said that the focus needs to be on "how the collective international response has been so defective, how Canada has failed so completely."

Liberal immigration spokesperson, John McCallum, slammed the government's record. He promised to bring in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees within three years.

"You know what? It depends on the political will," McCallum said on CBC television. "Why do you think that we've had very, very few refugees in this country compared to Germany, compared to Sweden? Because this government doesn't care."

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Alan Kurdi's refugee application, and that of his family, had been rejected by the Canadian government. His aunt later clarified that it was Alan's uncle who had his application refused.