Canada’s Conservative government came under fire on Thursday after it emerged that the family of a Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach had wanted to emigrate to Canada, rattling Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s re-election bid.
A photograph of the body of 3-year-old Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi face down in the sand at the Aegean resort of Bodrum swept social media and appeared prominently on front pages, spawning sympathy and outrage at the perceived inaction of developed nations in helping refugees.
Kurdi, his elder brother and mother all drowned. Their father Abdullah survived.
The boy’s aunt, Vancouver resident Tima Kurdi, said she had hoped to bring Abdullah and his family to Canada, but had first tried to sponsor another brother, currently in Germany, an application that was rejected.
Kurdi, breaking down repeatedly during an emotional news conference, said her brother told her how his sons and wife had perished in the choppy waters and revealed she had sent money to help the family leave Turkey.
“I told him ‘I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have sent you the money to go. If I hadn’t sent you the money you wouldn’t have left’,” she said.
She also said she did not want to “just blame the Canadian government. I’m blaming the whole world for this.”
Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration said the application of the first brother had been returned because it was “incomplete” and that there was no record of an application from Aylan’s family.
Fighting tears, New Democratic leader Thomas Mulcair, whose party has been leading in polls ahead of the Oct. 19 election, said one of his members of parliament had been trying to help the boy’s family.
“It’s just unbearable that we’re doing nothing. Canada has an obligation to act,” Mulcair said, choking up while speaking during a campaign stop.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said Canada must immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees.
Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander abandoned his own re-election campaign and returned to Ottawa.
Earlier this year an opposition legislator gave Alexander a letter from Tima Kurdi asking him to help her family. Alexander told CBC television he had seen the letter but that as minister he could not become personally involved in individual cases.
Harper said he and his wife had seen the photos of the drowned boy and thought of their own son at that age.
“If we look at the millions of people who are in danger, the tens of thousands who are dying, we could drive ourselves crazy with grief. Obviously we do what we can do to help,” Harper told reporters.
“Refugee policy alone is not remotely a solution,” he said, pointing to Canada’s participation in the military campaign against militant group Islamic State.
Harper’s overhaul of the country’s immigration system has been criticized by refugee advocates.
Canada has set it would accept 23,000 Iraqi refugees and 11,300 Syrians, but has been criticized for only resettling 2,300 Syrians to date. Alexander says Canada will accept 10,000 more persecuted minorities from the region.