Aylan Kurdi and Canada’s Refugee Policy

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Memorial for Aylan Kurdi By Defend International [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Aylan Kurdi by Defend International / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Aylan Kurdi is the 3 year old child washed up on a beach in Turkey. The boat he, his 5 year old brother and his parents, as well as 8 other refugees were travelling in capsized in the Mediterranean. They were trying to reach a Greek island and from there make their way further into mainland Europe. Only the father survived. The family is – or were – Syrian-Kurds from Kobane in Syria; a city under siege from ISIL fighters. Their complex situation means their access to free travel is even more restricted than your average refugee who braves the Mediterranean in the hope of making it to the shores of Europe.

A major reason why the Kurdi family were in that boat was that Canada had refused their G-5 private sponsored refugee application this past June. The father, Abdullah, has a sister in Vancouver, British Columbia and her Member of Parliament, Fin Donnelly, hand delivered their application for refugee status in Canada to Minister Alexander. The reasons for the rejection are complex and lead back to the tense relation between the Kurdish communities – whose homeland covers the remote corners of four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – and the nation states that their communities exist in. The father’s sister living in Vancouver, had migrated 20 years ago in the mid 1990’s and she tried to round up support to sponsor the family to Canada, but they ran into a labyrinth-like set of problems:

  • The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) has been accused of not classifying those Syrian Kurds staying in Turkey as refugees, although it is unclear to what extent this is true. The UNHCR’s own website displays a lot of information on Syrian refugees, many of them Kurds. Many Syrian Kurds cross over to Turkey, but then move on to Northern Iraq to established refugee camps in the semi-autonomous entity of Iraqi Kurdistan.
  • The Syrian government apparently often refuses to issue passports to Syrian Kurds. Kurdish factions in Syria have been fighting both ISIL and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime in order to gain autonomy for the Rojava region in northern Syria.
  • Turkey apparently refuses to issue exit visas to Syrian Kurds stating that they have no valid passports and are not classified as refugees. Turkey has had long-running conflicts with its Kurdish minority in south-eastern Turkey over the years, and has been accused of human rights abuses against Kurds.
  • Canada cannot accept Syrian Kurds as refugees unless they can board a flight to Canada. And to do that, they need an exit visa issued by the Turkish government. And not being recognized as refugees by the UNHCR does not help. Canada and Turkey are partners in NATO as well, and therefore allies.
  • The Harper government has said it will focus on persecuted ethnic minorities, like Christians. And budget cuts are suspected of causing delays in processing refugee applications in general.

The Syrian Civil War has resulted in 150,000 refugee applications by Syrians to 44 countries around the world in 2014 alone. By the beginning of 2015, Canada had re-settled over 1,300 Syrian refugees with a commitment to re-settle a further 10,000 over the next 3 years.

When Canada made the new pledge in January of 2015, they suggested that the private sector could help with 60% of the cases and the government would handle the remaining 40%. Unfortunately, this figure was given out to the media with little prior consultation with the private sector according to Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. At the time of the announcement, CIC spokesperson Remi Lariviere stated, “local conditions, security concerns, and logistical challenges that are outside of CIC’s control can contribute to processing challenges that can vary throughout the commitment.”    

But local conditions on a beach in Turkey have washed ashore in Canada, with Minister Alexander having suspended his campaign and headed back to Ottawa, where he was to be, in his words, “meeting with officials to ascertain both the facts of the case of the Kurdi family and to receive an update on the migrant crisis. “    

It appears Minister Alexander would like some answers himself from the officials at the CIC as to exactly why the Kurdi family application was rejected. Fin Donnelly, the MP representing the Kurdi family member in Vancouver, was unable to receive an explanation from the CIC as to why their refugee application was rejected.

In other words, the migrant crisis is now a political crisis for the governing Conservatives under Prime Minister Harper. As much as government officials may feel overwhelmed by events around the world that impact on Canada and its refugee policy, they have no choice but to have a reasonably flexible and adaptable policy that can respond to the day-by-day changes in global refugee crisis.

Canada cannot nor should it try to solve the world’s refugee problems. But Canada must do its fair share in a responsive way. Could Canada and the CIC have saved the Kurdi family? Maybe. Maybe not. The Syrian Civil War and its spill-over into neighbouring countries is a whirlpool that threatens to suck in all who approach it. But to reject a sponsored refugee application because of Turkish policy seems very short-sighted. Both in terms of human rights policy, and even politically. More than a few observers have stated that the CIC has been obliged to pursue specific policy goals by the government which have resulted in changing and confusing rules and regulations. The CIC can do a better job. Especially with bona fide refugees. So it may be that voters will hand that job to someone other than Minister Alexander come election time in October.



The latest information suggests that it was Mohammed Kurdi – Abdullah’s brother – whose family’s refugee application was hand delivered by Fin Donnelly and rejected by CIC. Since this story broke, CIC has stated that the application was rejected as being incomplete and “did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.” In other words, the core of the story is true: the complex policy decisions by the Turkish and Syrian governments and how they affect the UNHCR’s policy regarding Syrian Kurds, all meant that Abdullah Kurdi felt that he had no option but to pile his family into a precarious little boat to try and reach Greece. The fact that his brother had had his application rejected surely meant he felt he had little chance of having his own family accepted as refugees in Canada.

Whether the media was deliberately misled by Tima Kurdi – the sister living in Vancouver – is unclear. As well, the backlash against the media clouds the fact that there is a refugee crisis in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. France and Germany’s reaction to the Kurdi family story is an appropriate one and could provide a lead for the Canadian government to follow.

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