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Alan Kurdi's Death Forces Canada to Confront Its Commitment to Helping Syrian Refugees

canada syria refugee crisis

Canadian Immigration Minister and federal election candidate Chris Alexander. Screencap from CBC News official YouTube channel.

The death of Alan Kurdi has forced Canadian politicians in the midst of contesting a federal election campaign to address the fact that, despite a promise to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, very little has been done to achieve that target.

On Tuesday, September 2, the image of Alan's (reported widely as Aylan) lifeless body lying dead on a Turkish beach was shared on social media and published on the front pages of news sites all over the world. The 3-year-old had drowned, along with his mother Rehana and 5-year-old brother Ghalib, while trying to travel by boat to the Greek island of Kos.

Only the father, Abdullah Kurdi, survived.

By early Wednesday morning, the deaths had become a major news story in Canada when it was reported the Kurdi family had been trying to reach British Columbia, where Abdullah Kurdi's sister Tima Kurdi lives. Tima said she learned of Alan's death and other members of the family through the graphic images shared on social media.

“They didn't deserve to die,” she told reporters.

A member of parliament had hand-delivered a letter from the family asking for help

Tima Kurdi explained she had filed a refugee application for her other brother, Mohammed, but only had money to sponsor one brother at a time. So instead she wrote a letter to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander asking to help.

Speaking on Vancouver morning drive-in radio, opposition Member of Parliament Fin Donnelly explained that he had hand-delivered the letter from Tima, his constituent, to Alexander in March 2015 but received no response.

Donnelly's interview on CBC Radio can be listened to here: Alexander said in order to preserve impartiality as the head of immigration department, he had turned over the file to subordinates, and could therefore offer no help to the Kurdi family, who had not filed for asylum.

Shortly after Donnelly's radio interview, Alexander announced he was suspending his election campaign activities for the day to travel back to Ottawa to talk to ministry officials about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Canada isn't meeting its own refugee targets

At the beginning of 2015, in response to intense political pressure, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government promised to settle 13,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. Church groups and other private organizations, and not the government, are expected to be responsible for settling the refugees.

As of July 27, 2015 Canada's Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration reported that only 2,302 refugees from Syria had been settled in Canada. In contrast, Lebanon, with a population of about 4 million people, has accepted more than one million refugees from Syria.

The Harper government “clarified” its commitment at the start of the election campaign in August 2015: if re-elected it would resettle an additional 10,000 “religious minorities” from Syria and Iraq by 2017, for a total of 23,000 in all.

It has not been easy for the Canadian media or even regular Canadians themselves to determine whether or not Canada is living up to the firm promise made in January 2015 to accept Syrian refugees. In July 2015, leading Canadian weekly news magazine Maclean's reported that in order to find out how many refugees had been settled they would have to pay the Harper government for access to information.

However, the shocking images of Alan Kurdi's dead body, and the fact the family had been headed to Canada after making a direct appeal to the Canadian government, have now made Canada's deplorable record on assisting Syrian refugees an election issue.

The Canadian opposition is calling on the Conservative government to do more

Canada heads to the polls on October 19, 2015. So far the election has been a tight three-way race between the governing Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Harper; the New Democratic Party (NDP); and the Liberal Party of Canada.

On Wednesday, following the news of the Kurdi family's attempts to reach Canada, only to be seemingly ignored by Immigration Minister Alexander and the Conservative government, Justin Trudeau, leader of the opposition Liberal Party called on the ruling Conservative Party of Canada to accept more refugees.

NDP and Official Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, who, like Trudeau, hopes to replace Harper as prime minister on October 5, made an emotional plea for Canada to do more:

Some Twitter users criticized Mulcair for seemingly using Alan Kurdi to score political points:

Prime Minister Harper insists military action is a solution to the refugee crisis

Incumbent Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking at a Conservative rally outside of Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon, also became emotional when discussing the fate of Alan Kurdi and his family.

However, the prime minister quickly adopted a partisan tone, refusing to accept more refugees while attacking the NDP and the Liberals for voting against expanding Canada's military campaign against ISIS:

When questioned about the deaths of members of the Kurdi family while en route to Canada, Harper all but ignored the possibility of speeding up settling a greater number of refugees from Syria. He instead emphasized that military action needed to address the root causes of the refugee crisis.

The political firestorm surrounding the fate of the Kurdi family eclipsed another potential political bombshell on Tuesday, September 2, when a Pentagon document revealed that up to 27 Iraqi civilians had been killed in a Canadian airstrike.

Canadian media renews its focus on the plight of Syrian refugees

As the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe grew over the summer, there was little coverage of the issue in the Canadian media, which was absorbed with the falling price of oil, the possibility of recession and an election campaign called at the beginning of August.

Just hours before it would become apparent that the Kurdi family was heading for Canada, and had made a direct appeal to the Canadian immigration minister, the Globe and Mail, Canada's most influential daily newspaper, ran an editorial titled “Migrant crisis? No, Europe is facing a moral crisis.”

Canada's refugee targets were mentioned only in passing, in positive terms compared to Europe's perceived “immoral” response to the crisis:

Yes, in the first half of 2015, more than 300,000 migrants arrived in Europe. But that’s only about 0.1 per cent of the EU’s population. Canada takes in close to 1 per cent of its population each and every year, in the form of immigrants and refugees. Canada is not in crisis as a result. Quite the opposite.

Following the publication of the dreadful, heartbreaking images of Alan Kurdi, one Twitter user noted that Canadian politicians and pundits remarking on the crisis may be out of touch (Andrew Coyne, at left, and editor of the National Post daily, dutifully retweeted this):

Big city mayors also pressured the country to respond more generously to the refugee crisis.

Just over 24 hours since Alan Kurdi's death became news worldwide, Canada's serious national conversation about how to help has only just begun.

Scott Gilmore, a columnist who has frequently written about the Syrian humanitarian crisis for Maclean's Magazine, advocates that Canadians should continue to push their government to do more, and that the current election campaign in Canada is an opportunity to affect real change:

Read more of our special coverage: Streams of Refugees Seek Sanctuary in Europe

This story has been corrected to reflect that the Canadian federal election will be held on October 19, 2015.

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