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Canada denies turning away drowned Syrian boy's family

'There was no record of an application received for Mr Abdullah Kurdi (the toddler's father) and his family,' a ministry statement said
Men load the coffins of refugees, including three-year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned after a boat sank while trying to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos (AFP)

OTTOWA - Canada on Thursday denied it had received an asylum request from the family of a Syrian toddler who has become a symbol of Europe's refugee crisis after his little body washed up on a Turkish beach.

Identified as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the boy was among 12 refugees who died trying to reach Greece when their boats sank in Turkish waters.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that the child's family had tried in vain to join relatives in Canada - where the government has come under fire for failing to take in more Syrian refugees.

Relatives said the Canadian immigration department rejected their application in June, forcing them to leave Turkey on a smugglers’ boat that sank, drowning three-year-old Aylan with his mother, brother and at least nine other refugees. A photo of Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on a Turkish beach has ignited anger at the UK's response to the refugee crisis.

But the Kurdi family’s story was denied by the immigration ministry - and by the boy's aunt, the source of the media report, who has since clarified her comments.

"There was no record of an application received for Mr Abdullah Kurdi (the toddler's father) and his family," said a ministry statement. It said an application had been received for Abdullah's brother Mohammed, but "was returned as it was incomplete".

"Canada did not offer citizenship to Mr Abdullah Kurdi," which was also reported, the ministry said.

Chris Alexander, Canada’s immigration minister, has suspended his re-election campaign to look into the rejection of the refugee application, reported the Independent.

“Like all Canadians, I was deeply saddened by that image and of the many other images of the plight of the Syrian and Iraqi migrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS (the Islamic State group),” Alexander said.

A spokesperson said the minster’s priority “is to ascertain the facts of the case”.

Alexander also said that Canada has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programmes in the world, saying the government was planning to accept 23,000 Iraqis refugees and 11,300 Syrians.

The bleak image of the lifeless toddler - one of the four million people driven from their homes by Syria's conflict - has gone viral since Wednesday. The boy's father is the only survivor in the family of four. 

The Ottawa Citizen had cited the boy's aunt Teema Kurdi, who lives in Vancouver, as saying Aylan's family was the "subject of a 'G5' privately sponsored refugee application" that was rejected by Canada's immigration authorities in June.

"I was trying to sponsor them and I have my friends and my neighbours who helped me with the bank deposits, but we couldn't get them out, and that is why they went in the boat," the newspaper quoted her as saying.

"I was even paying rent for them in Turkey, but it is horrible the way they treat Syrians there."

Teema later told a press conference that she had not filled out an application for Abdullah and his family. She said she had sought to gain entry to Canada for the brother Mohammed, who is now in Germany.

Let one son go to save other

Reports said the child's family had fled to Turkey last year from the Syrian flashpoint of Kobane to escape the Islamic State (IS) group.

The aunt, who says she spoke with Abdullah by telephone, gave a harrowing account of the capsizing that claimed the lives of his wife and two sons.

As the boat went over, she said Abdullah emerged with the two boys in his arms but his older boy showed no signs of life, so he let him go to try to save the youngest.

"He looked at him and there was blood coming from his eyes and so he closed his eyes and he let him go too," she said in tears.

The lifeless body of his wife, who was terrified of the water, according to Teema, was floating nearby.

"They didn't deserve to die," Teema said. "They were going for a better life. It shouldn't happen, it shouldn't happen to them."

Refugee crisis hits campaign

With Canada heading to elections on 19 October, the plight of Syria's refugees has become a campaign issue, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledging to do more if his Tories are re-elected - while stressing the key to ending the crisis was to defeat IS.

"If we look at the millions of people literally who are in danger and the tens of thousands dying, we could drive ourselves crazy with grief and obviously we do what we can do to help," he said.

While Canada has agreed to resettle 20,000 refugees, as of late July it had only welcomed 1,002, according to government figures.

Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, which is leading in the polls, said Canada could easily take in 10,000 refugees "immediately".

"As a father and grandfather, I think it's absolutely intolerable what we're seeing now ... (and it) cannot go on," he said.

At a campaign stop, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau stepped up his criticisms of the Conservatives on immigration.

"You don't get to discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign. You either have it or you don't."

Despite the deaths of more than 2,000 refugees crossing the Mediterranean this year, several countries have refused to accept proposed quotas of asylum seekers.