Aylan Kurdi and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Patrick Rocca | September 9, 2015

Toronto immigration lawyer Karen Kwan Anderson: The heartbreaking story of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi continues to make headlines. He died after the refugee boat his family was on capsized off the coast of Turkey.

People later learned that the boy’s family were trying to come to Canada under refugee status and had been refused. The reason for the refusal is tragically mundane and typical. Paperwork:

Little Alan [sic] Kurdi, 3, was photographed washed up on the Turkish shore, suddenly refocusing the Syrian tragedy in a single image that has broken millions of hearts.

He might have become a Canadian.

NDP member of Parliament Fin Donnelly said yesterday he had written to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on behalf of Abdullah Kurdi’s sister Fatima, who was trying to bring her brothers Abdullah and Muhammad and their families to British Columbia.

The Immigration Department issued a statement today, saying Muhammad’s application had been rejected, “as it was incomplete as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.” There was no record of an application received for Abdullah Kurdi and his family, it said.

I later heard Fatima Kurdi’s local MP on CBC Radio confirm that the sponsorship package was returned by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) as “incomplete”; likely there were missing documents.

Our team has had this experience with what we call “the tyranny of the clerks.”

I once had a client who wanted to bring her parents to Canada, but they did not qualify for the parent sponsorship category.


They had escaped their home country and were living without status in another country, a key component of refugee status. As such, I prepared a Group of Five (G5) overseas refugee application to sponsor her parents. Here’s what the government has to say about G5 applications:

A Group of five (G5) is five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee living abroad to come to Canada. All of the group members must be at least 18 years of age and live or have representatives in the area where the refugee will settle.

The group must agree to give emotional and financial support to the refugee(s) for the full sponsorship period-usually one year.

Effective October 19, 2012, a G5 may only sponsor applicants who are recognized as refugees by either the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or a foreign state.

A G5 application has two parts: 1) the paperwork from the sponsors, who complete their forms and provide supporting documents. 2) the overseas applicant and his or her dependents who complete their forms and provide supporting documents.

Once all of this material is gathered, the application package goes to a CIC office in Winnipeg, Canada to assess the Group’s credentials. If approved, the package goes to a Canadian visa office abroad to process the sponsored person.


This sounds relatively simple, but if you’ve ever stood in line to renew your driver’s license, then you know that a bureaucracy can really slow you down.

It took our team about one year to prepare the forms for this case, as we went back and forth with the G5 leader to collect the information and confirm it was correct.

During this drafting period Immigration Canada, as is their wont, updated its forms. This is bad news, because it renders your old forms useless. We had to update everyone’s information onto the new forms. Then while this was going on, the client’s mother suddenly passed away. This changed the application yet again.

For a third time, we updated the paperwork. We finally submitted the voluminous application package to CIC. The package included such supporting documents as articles from the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. These supporting documents are critical, because unless you can prove you are a refugee as the UN defines it, you’re probably out of luck.


We later received the return and rejection of the application package from Winnipeg because it was incomplete; they requested more supporting documents. In this time, the sponsored person’s circumstances changed further, making the case as we knew it moot. We would have to start over.

While we no longer work on cases of this type, we continue to work with this particular client to come up with a solution to sponsor her father.

I imagine this takes place hundreds of times a day around the world, sometimes – as in the case of Aylan Kurdi – with tragic results.

Though it likely feels like it to everyone involved, the process isn’t necessarily built to make someone’s life harder; the government genuinely does want to make sure someone is who they say they are. But when you’re sitting in a refugee camp or on a boat bound for nowhere, the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

It is a sad reality that the wheels of immigration justice often grind as slowly as they do in any other kind of law. I wish they didn’t.