Terry Glavin: Why little Alan Kurdi and his family never really had a chance of reaching Canada

It’s the most heartbreaking thing about the story of three-year-old , the Syrian refugee child lying dead on a Turkish beach in his tiny shoes, his blue shorts and his perfect little red shirt. It is also the most overlooked and least-understood part of the story of that photograph that has driven people all around the world half-mad with rage.

The little angel never had a hope in hell.

It had all seemed so hopeful, at least for a fleeting few weeks. Alan and his five-year-old brother Ghalib and their mother Rehenna and their father Abdullah were going to get out. They were going to make it. Uncle Mohammad and Auntie Ghuson and his four cousins were going to make it, too. They were all going to join Auntie Tima in , and everything was going to be all right.

But they never had a chance, and the plan was dead in the water long before it even appeared as part of a meticulously developed plan contained in a carefully constructed, elaborate submission, with appendices, drafted by the smart young Coquitlam-Port Moody New Democratic Party MP Fin Donnelly and submitted directly to Citizenship & Immigration Minister . They were all going to make it to Canada by way of a G5 private-sponsorship application for refugee resettlement in Canada.

Mehmet Can Meral/ Associated PressMehmet Can Meral/ Associated PressAbdullah Kurdi, 40, father of Syrian boys Alan, 3, and Ghalib, 5, who were washed up drowned on a beach cries as he waits for the delivery of their bodies outside a morgue in Mugla, .

Auntie Tima, a hairdresser in Vancouver, was taking care of everything. Her friends were helping out, too, with the money, and filling out forms, and signing assurances. Uncle Mohammad and Auntie Ghuson and their four kids would go first. Then Abdullah and Rehenna and their kids were going to submit their own G5 application. But the whole thing had fallen apart. They’d found out in June that it wasn’t going to work, when Uncle Mohammad’s G5 application was rejected.

And that’s why Abdullah and Rehanna and Alan and Ghalib were in the boat that day, and the boat capsized in the waves on the stormy crossing to the Greek island of Kos. Abdullah thrashed around in the water, swimming first to little Alan, and then to Ghalib and back again, and then to Rehenna, in the madness and the horror and the wind. Only Abdullah survived, and in his grief and his rage, he wanted to be dead himself.

The photograph of Alan on the beach first appeared in local Turkish media, then it was widely distributed by Peter Bouckaert, the director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, and then it went instantaneously “viral.” Bouckaert himself was on the tramp, in Hungary, on an assignment to document the sea voyages and the land routes, and the crippling indignities involved in an exodus of hundreds of thousands of homeless Syrians, out of a population of four million refugees, from out of their broken country and into the cities of Europe.

It was almost instantaneous, the way millions of Europeans were themselves devoured by rage at the terrible spectacle of little Alan Kurdi, dead on the beach, on the front pages of all the newspapers, and European presidents were issuing statements and there were protests of outrage at the incoherence of Europe’s governments in the face of the gravest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Photos courtesy of Newseum. Photos courtesy of Newseum.

When the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post published some of the photographs from that Turkish beach and reported that the Kurdis had been hoping to make their way to Canada, there was another wave of rage. We all wanted a villain to blame, and Chris Alexander leapt into the role by having come off like a thoroughly insensitive jackass, that same day, on the very subject of the Syrian refugee crisis, on CBC’s Power and Politics.

But simple stories like these almost always prove to be complicated. There is nothing quite so complicated, and at the same time straightforward, as the reasons why a fair assessment would find that there was probably little if anything Alexander could have done for the Kurdi families. The villainy, if that is what it is, is to be found mostly in Turkey’s exemption from certain provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

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The United Nations High Commission on Refugees does not register asylum seekers in Turkey. Turkey does not issue exit visas to refugees who do not possess referrals from the UNHCR. In Turkey, there are no “refugee camps.” There are Turkish “temporary protection shelters.” The Kurdis had no papers, no UNHCR refugee designations, and no passports, and therefore did not qualify for exit visas.

That is why their plans to obtain G5 refugee-resettlement approvals from Citizenship and Immigration Canada were doomed from the start, and it is why Alan and Ghalib and their parents ended up boarding that boat.

Canada began attempts to resolve the incongruities two years ago, when there were 200,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey — there are now roughly two million — and the Syrian war had claimed 90,000 lives — the death toll is now nearly three times that high — and 925,000 Syrians had fled their country. Now there are four million Syrians sleeping on roadsides throughout the Middle East, or lingering in UN refugee camps in Jordan, or subsisting in back alleys in Lebanon, or setting out in coffin ships to Europe.

AP / DHAAP / DHAParamilitary police officers investigate the scene before carrying the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015.

But it was that one photograph that mattered.

The thousands of photographs of dead children, dismembered mothers, bombed schools, old men writhing in agonies from sarin gas and chlorine gas, and all the rest that ’s democratic underground has been flooding social media with for the past two years have not mattered. The 27,000 photographs of Syrians beaten and tortured in Bashar al-Assad’s dungeons since 2011, smuggled out by regime dissidents in an operation known as Project Cesar, do not seem to have made any difference at all.

But those photographs invite these questions: How can the world allow this barbarism to continue? Why aren’t we stopping the war? What sort of “western civilization” have we become, to allow such horror to be visited upon the innocent of Syria, and yet we do nothing?

It is from that barbarism that millions of refugees have been flowing out of Syria. But the photograph of little Alan Kurdi can trigger more easily-answerable questions. Why aren’t we doing something useful for these poor, bedraggled refugees? In Canada, especially now that we’re in the midst of an election campaign, the photograph of that little boy can be put to more convenient use: what sort of a monster is this Chris Alexander?

But what would be a fine thing, if those two boys and their mother are not to have died in vain, is to try to rise above ourselves for once, as Canadians, and try to agree to do something decent, something maybe even slightly grand. We should fold our arms around the Kurdi family here in Canada. We should fold our arms around Canada’s broken-hearted Syrian-Canadian community. We should try to sort out a more generous, sensible and effective refugee resettlement policy, and leave the politics out of it altogether.

National Post

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