Newspapers around the world are dominated today by images of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed ashore Wednesday on a Turkish beach. Some media showed the boy’s limp body being carried away by a policeman. Others forced readers to confront the reality of the boy in the red T-shirt and blue shorts lying face down, alone, on the wet sand.
“The shocking, cruel reality of Europe’s refugee crisis,” ran the banner headline in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. “Migrant crisis? No, Europe is facing a moral crisis,” read an online headline in The Globe and Mail.
But this crisis is also a Canadian one. The Ottawa Citizen reported that Aylan and his family – mother Rehan, father Abdullah and Aylan’s 5-year-old brother Galip – were rejected in June by Canada’s refugee system. Their desperate attempt to reach Europe was motivated in part by Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s rejection of their application to be resettled in British Columbia, where they have relatives who were willing to sponsor them.
The four applied in Turkey after fleeing the Kurdish city of Kobane, in northern Syria. The city was captured last year by Islamic State, and reduced to rubble as warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition helped Kurdish forces recapture Kobane in January.
Their application apparently foundered because Aylan and his family, like many Syrian Kurds in Turkey, lacked the necessary documents.
Now Aylan, Galip and Rehan are dead. Their bodies were found among 12 that washed ashore near the Turkish resort of Bodrum after a pair of boats capsized shortly after setting off for the Greek island of Kos, the nearest corner of the European Union. Abdullah, the grief-stricken father, has apparently told relatives that he now wants only to return to Kobane, to bury his family and then be buried alongside them.
“Aylan’s family did everything they could to legally migrate to Canada, and found their path blocked. They put their hands in the lives of smugglers, and he, his brother and mother lost their lives as a result,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.
The tragedy of Aylan and his family came amid a mind-numbing week for a Europe that has struggled to come up with a cogent response to the wave of humanity pushing against its borders. The beaches of Kos and other Greek and Italian islands have been deluged with tens of thousands fleeing wars the West likes to forget it had a large hand in starting. Tiny Macedonia briefly had its police try and hold the line against the tens of thousands more traversing the Balkans by foot, only to relent when it became clear nothing short of lethal force – and maybe not even that – would convince the asylum-seekers to turn back.
Now the train station in central Budapest is the centre of the drama, with thousands of would-be refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan waiting for trains to Western Europe that are refusing to take them there. The International Organization for Migration says some 350,000 migrants have arrived at the EU’s borders during the first eight months of this year. And that’s just the ones who were detected.
The death toll has also continued to rise. Last Thursday, 71 dead migrants – believed to be from Syria – were found suffocated in the back of a truck abandoned alongside a highway in Austria. The same day, another 200 were feared to have died after a pair of overpacked boats capsized off the coast of Libya. At least 2,500 migrants are known to have died trying to reach the EU this year, badly dividing a political bloc that won the Nobel Peace Prize just three years ago.
Germany and Sweden have led the way in keeping the door open, with Germany accepting the largest number of new arrivals – it expects to receive 800,000 asylum-seekers this year – and Sweden taking in by far the largest share per capita. Hungary and the United Kingdom, meanwhile have distinguished themselves by throwing up new barriers to migration, with Hungary hastily fencing off its border with Serbia while the U.K. tries to keep migrants camped in the French port of Calais from crossing the English Channel.
Canada belongs in the latter camp. While the Conservative government has said it plans to take in 20,000 refugees from Syria this year, government figures show that just 1,002 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada as of late July.
Every crisis has a face that sticks in the mind when the mind-numbing numbers don’t, from the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack who changed minds about the Vietnam War, to the blue-eyed girl who made the world care about Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In death, Aylan Kurdi has become the face of the unfolding refugee catastrophe stretching from the Middle East to Calais.
The tale of the boy in the red T-shirt is also a reminder that this moral crisis – and responsibility for this tragic failure to respond – is not just Europe’s, but Canada’s too.