News that the family of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned on a Turkish beach, had tried to get to Canada has touched a raw nerve amid campaigning for the federal election in October.
The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, sensing a looming public relations crisis, hunkered down on Thursday to recalibrate its public stance on the refugee crisis.
Leaders of both the main opposition parties berated the Conservatives for not doing enough for the refugees, without offering new policy proposals of their own.
Suddenly, what was until now a European crisis had become Canada’s too.
“It is a crisis that has been on the radar for over five years that Canada had chosen to ignore,” said Sujith Xavier, professor of law at the University of Windsor. “Xenophobia, the fear of Islam and racist views have a role here.”
The spotlight was thrown on the crisis because Tima Kurdi, an aunt of Aylan who lives in the Vancouver area, had sent a letter this spring to federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander seeking to sponsor the boy’s family of four for resettlement here. Their application was apparently rejected.
However, later on Thursday, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) said in a statement that the department had handled an application for another Kurdi brother, Mohammad, not for Abdullah and his family.
“An application for Mr Mohammad Kurdi and his family was received by the department but was returned as it was incomplete and it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition from the UNHCR or from a foreign state. There was no record of an application received for Mr Abdullah Kurdi and his family,” the statement said.
It also denied that Canada had offered citizenship to Abdullah Kurdi. Earlier reports had said that after identifying his dead family, Abdullah Kurdi, the sole survivor, claimed Canadian officials had offered him citizenship after seeing what had happened but that he declined.
“I was trying to sponsor them, and I have my friends and my neighbours who helped me with the bank deposits, but we couldn’t get them out, and that is why they went in the boat,” a distraught Tima Kurdi has been quoted as saying.
She posted this on Facebook: “My deepest condolences to my brother's family who suffered a tragic death in search of a better life. Where is the humanity in the world [?] They did not deserve this. My heart is broken. Rest in peace Angels.”
Rocco Logozzo, her husband, told The Canadian Press news agency his family had money and plenty of room to house his brother-in-law’s family. He blamed Canada’s refugee asylum system for his family’s plight and said it is designed to fail.
Prof. Xavier agrees. “The present government has gone out of its way to sideline refugee issues and pass them off as cases of people smuggling.” He said delays in filling up vacancies to the Immigration and Refugee Board had created a huge backlog of cases.
The Kurdi family is likely to have sought to come under a G5 refugee sponsorship application where a group of five Canadians or permanent residents acts as guarantors.
Also, Canadian residents and organizations including cultural and religious groups can apply to sponsor refugees.
But processing times are long. In July, the government estimated it would take 45 months to process one such application at the embassy in Ankara.
Government in crisis mode
As more details about the toddler’s drowning came in, Harper - who is campaigning in Surrey, British Columbia - abruptly cancelled a news conference that was supposed to have focused on the crisis in Iraq and Syria.
Jason Kenney, minister of national defense and of multiculturalism, cancelled a campaign event in Brampton, Ontario, where he was to have made an “important announcement on Conservative efforts to protect the integrity of Canada’s immigration system and the security of Canada.”
Before taking up his current portfolios, Kenney had a high-profile stint as minister for immigration and multiculturalism.
He is seen as the architect of Canada’s current stringent policy toward asylum-seekers, and has been criticized by refugee advocates.
Chris Alexander, minister of citizenship and immigration, cancelled campaign activities in his constituency of Ajax, near Toronto, to be in the capital Ottawa for talks with immigration officials.
“The tragic photo of young Aylan Kurdi and the news of the death of his brother and mother broke hearts around the world,” Alexander said in a statement.
“Like all Canadians, I was deeply saddened by that image and of the many other images of the plight of the Syrian and Iraqi migrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS.”
He said Canada had resettled 2,300 Syrians to date as part of a pledge in January to take in 10,000 over three years.
In the course of the current election campaign, Harper has vowed that an additional 10,000 people from the Middle East would be resettled over the next four years.
Alexander said the government had a target to accept 23,000 Iraqis and 11,300 Syrians, and would add 10,000 more “persecuted ethnic and religious minorities from the region.”
Less welcoming country
Taking aim at the Conservatives, the opposition said the party had abandoned Canada’s history of welcoming refugees.
“These kids, the older brother could've been going to school next week in Canada,” New Democratic leader Thomas Mulcair said, choking up while speaking during a campaign stop in Toronto.
“This is hard for everyone. It’s a failure by the international community, it’s a failure for Canada.”
On how many people he would commit to resettling in Canada, Mulcair said the government should accept 10,000 right away and move forward from there.
“I don’t want us to wait until Oct. 19,” the date of the election, he said. “I want us to act immediately.”
He added: “Let’s be generous. Let’s be open. Let’s do like we did with the boat people after the collapse of Vietnam. Let’s bring our hearts to understand that we have this obligation, and let’s get it done.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was cynical about Alexander’s decision to stop campaigning to deal with refugee issues.
“You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign. You either have it or you don’t,” Trudeau said during a campaign stop, adding that Canada must immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees.
Xavier is skeptical about the refugee-intake figures being touted by the politicians. He said the issue must be seen from the broader perspective of North-South relations and inequities perpetuated by colonialism and imperialism.
Faisal Alazem, a 32-year-old campaigner for the Syrian-Canadian Council in Montreal, was quoted as saying by the National Post newspaper: “The worst part of it is the feeling that we don’t have any allies. That is what people in the Syrian community are feeling.”
Organizations such as Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based community engagement initiative formed in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, hope to set right this anomaly. On Thursday, it asked the Canadian government to take action on five points.
Among other things, it wants less complex paperwork, more steps to facilitate Syrian family reunification, and boosting financial, human and logistical resources in Canada and in visa offices abroad.
The photo of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack changed American minds about the Vietnam war. It is hoped that the image of a lifeless toddler on a beach will change the way Canadians view this latest refugee crisis.
Xavier said deep-seated prejudices has made Canadian society less welcoming than it wants to be seen as, “but at least Canadians have the potential to learn.”