The Canadian legacy of the life and death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi

·National Affairs Contributor
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[In this Sept. 2, 2015 file photo, a paramilitary police officer investigates the scene before carrying the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi from the sea shore, near the Turkish beach resort of Bodrum. (AP Photo/DHA/Nilufer Demir]

Alan Kurdi never knew peace.

Just three years old when he died, he was born in war and died trying to flee it, like many thousands of others.

But it was the Sept. 2, 2015, image of this little boy, face down on a Turkish beach, that stirred the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.

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“I’d been seeing these type of images for quite some time,” says Warda Shazadi Meighen, a Toronto-based immigration, refugee and human rights lawyer and a Human Rights Watch committee member.

Heartbreaking as it was, she didn’t anticipate the way Alan’s death would change the public dialogue about Syria’s displaced.

“I absolutely noticed the change right away and I was surprised — pleasantly surprised — by that,” Shazadi Meighen, who was at Oxford at the time, tells Yahoo Canada News.

“There was a human face that people could actually look at what was happening.”

It also became a turning point in Canada, making headlines in the midst of a fall federal election campaign in which immigration policy was already an issue.

“In Canada the situation was quite ripe for reception to this issue,” she says.

“There seemed to be an appetite for this, not only because of the Conservative government’s lack of response to the Syrian crisis but also other immigration and humanitarian issues. The Conservatives played a different game and they were really focused on wedge politics.

“The Liberals were trying to distinguish themselves as a more humanitarian and inclusive and compassionate brand of government than the Conservatives.”

The photo — and the discussion around it — had a huge impact on the campaign and, in the longer term, on policy, says Dan Hiebert, an expert in international migration and professor at the University of British Columbia.

There were many factors but “I’d say the news of his death and photo enabled a conversation that built from latent concerns about what was then the policy of Canada,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

“The immigration-refugee policy regime is quite different today than it was a year ago and the news photo of Alan Kurdi was certainly an ingredient in that.”

The Syrian civil war had raged for two years before the then-Conservative government committed in July 2013 to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees in Canada — the vast majority of them sponsored by private individuals, rather than government.

But by the end of 2014 only 700 had arrived.

Under pressure from an appeal by the United Nations, the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper committed in 2015 to accepting 20,000 more – again, most through private sponsorship and with a focus on “ethnic minorities,” meaning Christians and non-Muslims.

But by the time Alan died last Sept. 2, Canada had accepted about 2,400 Syrian refugees.

There were other questions about the turn immigration and refugee policy had taken, including changes to the federal legislation to tighten admission rules and cutting off health care coverage for claimants.

The government made detention mandatory for “irregular arrivals” and established a safe country list to circumvent asylum claims.

Mistakenly, news initially circulated that Alan’s aunt in B.C. had applied to bring his family to Canada and was rejected. Though wrong, it was devastating.

Alan, his five-year-old brother, Galib, and his mother, Rehan, were among five people who died that day trying to reach Greece on an inflatable boat.

The outcry over their deaths sent Canadian political parties scrambling to respond.

The Conservatives, who had yet to announce their “barbaric cultural practices” tip line, pledged $100 million for Syrian humanitarian aid but did not increase their commitment of 20,000.

The New Democrats promised to resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2015, with 9,000 more in following years.

Three days after Alan died, Justin Trudeau held a news conference to commit to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada and an additional $100 million for refugee processing if the Liberals were elected.

Their boxes barely unpacked, the victorious Liberals had to marshall the resources to fulfil the ambitious plan. It cost, according to reports, nearly $1 billion and took longer than promised but from Nov. 4, 2015, to mid-August, 29,970 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. (Immigration Minister John McCallum declined several interview requests.)

It was all the photographer who took the photo could hope for.

“The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard,” Nilüfer Demir, a photojournalist with Turkey’s Doğan News Agency (DHA), told the agency.

“At that moment, I believed I would be able to achieve this by clicking the shutter of my camera and took his picture.”

Alan’s Canadian aunt, Tima Kurdi, has said she believes her nephew has saved thousands of lives but she believes more could be done.

“I think what Canada did was beautiful, to open the door and bring 25,000,” she tells Yahoo Canada News in an interview.

“But I think Canada has the capacity to take even more from all over the world. People are starving, people are in a desperate need. They need our help. Canada has the capacity to bring more. We should always keep our door open for the people who need our help.”

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