For the record: Stephen Harper on Syrian refugees

A transcript of Stephen Harper’s statement about the death of Alan Kurdi and his family at a B.C. campaign stop

On Thursday, Stephen Harper spoke about the Syrian refugee crisis, brought to tragic light by the horrifying photograph of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who died—with his brother and mother—trying to flee Syria. Below is a transcript of Harper’s comments as well as his responses to questions from the media. Remarks in French are in italics.

Related: Paul Wells on how the Syrian refugee crisis became political

Moderator: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and thank you very much for your patience. We appreciate this. I want to acknowledge the Singh family for allowing us all to be here and present this morning. I want to welcome all of the Conservative candidates that are here.

It gives me great pleasure at this point in time to introduce our Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper.

(Applause) (Cheers)

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper: Thank you very much, merci beaucoup. Thank you very much Diane for that introduction. I want to thank first of all, all of you for coming out today. I know you’re going to all work very hard to make sure that Diane and all of our stellar group of candidates in the Lower Mainland gets elected. Thank you all for your presence and for your efforts. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s also give a brief hand to Fruiticana who has agreed to host us here today.


Obviously today there’s a little bit of different circumstances. Je voudrais faire une déclaration brève en anglais d’abord et puis en français et puis on va répondre aux questions des médias.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I said we’re a little bit different circumstances today. I want to say something, a brief statement that I’ll make in English. I will repeat the statement in French and then we will take a few questions from the media.

First of all it really is on the big story that I know we’ve all seen. Yesterday Laureen and I saw on the internet the picture of this young boy, Alan, dead on the beach. Look, I think our reaction to that, you know the first thing that crossed our minds was remembering our own son Ben at that age running around like that.

I think that brings tears to your eye. I think that is the reaction of every parent, anyone who’s ever had a two year old or been near a two year old, been a parent in Canada or anywhere around the world. It truly is a heartbreaking situation. It’s a terrible tragedy and I know all of our hearts go out to those who are touched personally by this tragedy.

What I want to say though is this, friends. I don’t need to tell you what we saw yesterday was a tragedy. What I need to tell you is that it is far, far worse than that, far worse. As Prime Minister I have been to refugee camps in Jordan and in Iraq. I can tell you that I have seen tens of thousands of people in these desperate circumstances. There are millions more in exactly the same situation.



There are in fact tens of millions of people not in the refugee camps but tens of millions of people whose lives have been affected by what is going on in that part of the world in a way that is catastrophic, that has put their very survival on a day to day basis in jeopardy. That is the reality of the situation that we are dealing with and it is getting worse and getting worse in many parts of the world.

We see what’s happening in Iraq and Syria, this kind of violence. The kind of violent jihadist movement we see there is happening in more and more places. Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world. We admit per capita more people than any other. During the lifetime of this government we’ve had 2.5 million new arrivals in Canada. Many of those, a large part of them, a large part …

Unidentified: (Off microphone)


Rt.Hon. Stephen Harper: From where Sir? It’s great to have you here. A large part of the people who have come are people who are coming for reasons of family reunification, for humanitarian and compassionate grounds and of course refugee situations as well. Earlier in this campaign I announced that this government, we have already accepted tens of thousands of refugees from this part of the world, from the Middle East and I announced earlier in the campaign that we will accept more.

But friends, refugee policy alone is not remotely a solution to this problem. It is of a scale far, far beyond that. That’s why we have been one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid of any country relative to our size in this part of the world. I know that has been appreciated by many of the people I did visit when I was there.

Yes, we are also doing what we have to do to try and fight the root cause of this problem. That is the violent campaign being led against millions of people by ISIS. That is why we are part of the international military coalition.


A few days ago I met with the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, an example of just one of a number of communities I have met leaders of those communities who are represented in that part of the region and have some of their community here in Canada. He was visiting us from Damascus Syria. That is where he actually still lives, still resides.

Look, what they all tell you is this, friends. They all tell you we’re honoured, we’re delighted, we’re relieved when we see some of our people coming to this country and we appreciate you doing that. We also appreciate the humanitarian aid you delivered to us. We need it. Our people are desperate.

But more than anything what we need, we need to have people – to be in a situation where people are not attacking and trying to kill us. This is not a solution. We do not want to pick up our entire communities, hundreds of thousands of our millions of people and move them out of the region where they have lived for as long as history has been written.

They do not want that. They want us to help them. That is why we provide refugee placements, friends. That is why we provide humanitarian aid to these millions of people and that is why we are part of the international military coalition taking on the so-called Islamic State. We can do all of these things. We should do all of these things and Canada will and is doing all of these things.


Related: His name was Alan Kurdi

(The French translation of his remarks follow in italics.)

Je voudrais répéter. Comme je viens de le dire, hier Laureen et moi nous avons vu comme tout le monde, nous avons vu cette image sur internet de ce petit garçon, Alan, mort sur la plage. Quelle est la première chose qu’on pense? Nous nous souviendrons de notre enfant Benjamin à un tel âge. On pleure. C’est terrible.

C’est terrible et je pense que tous les parents du Canada et du monde réagissent de la même façon quand on voit une telle tragédie. Évidemment nos cœurs, nos pensées, nos prières sont avec ceux et celles des familles qui sont touchées par cet incident. Mais mes amis, la vérité que je dois dire ce n’est pas seulement que c’est une tragédie. Ce n’est pas nécessaire de dire ça.

C’est de dire que c’est beaucoup pire que ça, beaucoup pire que ça. Quand on parle des gens dans de telles circonstances maintenant on parle de millions. J’ai visité les camps des réfugiés en Jordanie, en Iraq. J’ai vu des dizaines de milliers de personnes dans de telles circonstances.

Il y a des millions d’autres. Il y a des dizaines de millions qui ne sont pas dans des camps, qui ne sont pas encore officiellement des réfugiés mais pour qui la survie est en question à cause de la violence par ce mouvement djihadiste pas seulement dans cette partie du monde mais dans d’autres régions, de plus en plus d’autres régions et même ici, des groupes qui veulent porter de telle violence ici.

C’est la réalité. Pour notre pays, le Canada, nous sommes le pays le plus généreux du monde per capita quand on parle du système d’admission des réfugiés et des immigrants. Depuis notre entrée en fonction nous recevons 2,5 millions d’immigrants. Une grande partie sont des gens qui sont ici pour des raisons de réunification familiale, pour des raisons compatissantes et humanitaires et pour des gens qui sont officiellement, un le statut de réfugié.

Mais la réalité est que quand on parle de la situation dans le Moyen Orient il n’y a pas de solution seulement par des façons d’une politique de réfugiés. C’est la raison pour laquelle le Canada est un des plus grands dans l’aide humanitaire à des millions de personnes qui sont déplacées, qui sont en danger, en péril.

C’est la raison pour laquelle nous participons dans la mission militaire contre la cause d’une grande partie de cette violence, la mission militaire contre le soi-disant État Islamique. J’ai rencontré récemment le patriarche de l’Église Orthodoxe Syriaque. C’est un de plusieurs groupes qui sont en péril à cause de la violence, une des cibles des tueurs de l’État Islamique.

Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit? Ils apprécient évidemment qu’il y a des membres de leur communauté qui sont ici maintenant. Ils apprécient ça. Ils apprécient notre aide humanitaire. Évidemment c’est nécessaire pour la survie de beaucoup de monde, de millions de monde.

Mais en même temps ils ne veulent pas abandonner la région dans laquelle ils habitent depuis des siècles, depuis le commencement de l’histoire écrite. Ce n’est pas une solution pour eux. La solution est d’arrêter la violence contre ces communautés et contre cette région, une violence et des tueurs qui menacent à porter cette violence à travers le monde y compris ici au Canada.

C’est la raison pour laquelle, mes amis, c’est pourquoi nous sommes – nous avons donné le statut de réfugié à des personnes et nous avons promis d’augmenter pendant cette campagne. C’est la raison pour laquelle nous donnons de l’aide humanitaire et c’est la raison pour laquelle nous sommes dans la coalition internationale contre l’État Islamique. Nous devons faire toutes ces choses. Nous sommes en train de faire toutes ces choses et c’est notre obligation de faire toutes ces choses.


Moderator: Thank you Prime Minister. We’ll continue with questions from the media. We’ll begin with Paul Wells from Maclean’s.

Paul Wells: Prime Minister, you repeated the necessity for the military engagement against ISIS. That engagement began in 2014. The refugee crisis began in 2011. Today Angela Merkel, David Cameron, François Hollande who are all participating in the military action against ISIS are treating this refugee crisis as a refugee crisis.

Canada has accepted about 10% of the refugees from Syria that it said it will. Will the deaths of these two boys increase the rate of Canadian acceptance of Syrian refugees?

Rt.Hon. Stephen Harper: As I indicated to you at the beginning of the campaign we indicated we’re going to accept more refugees from this region, from Syria and Iraq. That’s an announcement I’ve already made. But let’s be clear.

All of our allies, all of our allies have been treating this situation as not just a refugee crisis but also obviously a humanitarian crisis and also a crisis of global and international peace and security that poses a direct threat not just to the people there but to people throughout the world. All of the leaders you mentioned share that position and that is the position of the government of Canada.


Related: The case for why Canada should accept 20 times more refugees

Moderator: We’ll continue with Richard Madan, CTV.

Richard Madan: Prime Minister, in your opening remarks you made reference to that heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdi. As you know there are reports that Kurdi’s extended family living right here in BC had their application rejected in Canada. Can you explain what happened to their application and does your government feel any sense of responsibility for this child’s tragic death?

Rt.Hon. Stephen Harper: I think actually, look, the Minister and officials are looking at all of the facts of the situation. I think some of the things you’re asserting are not correct and in fact officials and even the family will correct the record on some of those particular matters.

But we will get all the facts and we will look at the situation. Look, as I say, we could drive ourselves crazy with grief if we look at as I say the millions of people literally who are in danger, the tens of thousands who are dying. We could drive ourselves crazy with grief. Obviously we do what we can do to help.

Moderator: (Off microphone)

Question: Good morning Prime Minister. This morning there was a news conference in which this young boy’s family made a plea. They said please, please help those people over there in the water. Please don’t let them die. Feed them, give them some water, buy a banana for them. What is your message to this family, to the millions of people who need to get out now, not four years from now over which your government has pledged to help refugees but right now.

Rt.Hon. Stephen Harper: As I say, my message is obviously the same. Grief is a terrible thing. Our hearts go out to the family, anybody touched by this but our message has been the same all along. We are admitting more refugees and we will. We promised that earlier in the campaign. It’s one of our campaign commitments.

But that is not a solution in and of itself. We actually have to feed, clothe, educate people who are there. We’re doing that as well and we cannot allow a situation to continue where tens of millions of people face displacement and/or slaughter. That is why we must still engage with the military, with the military community, with our international allies to try and counter this growing violence.

It is simply not acceptable to pretend that you can deal with this terrible crisis by only dealing with one small aspect of the problem. It is much bigger than that and that is what we are doing as a government.


Moderator: (Off microphone)

Question: Prime Minister, on the same topic, something happened yesterday around the world and in the hearts of people around the world when they saw that picture. Something happened again when we learned there was a Canadian connection to this family. It’s happening here.

It’s all that anyone is talking about. I can tell in the places that I’m seeing online and the conversations that I’m hearing even in the hotel that we’re at. I’ve heard you say today that you have promised more. Earlier in the campaign you promised more but I’m listening to people and hearing from people who are wondering whether we should not be doing even more.

You described this today as being a heartbreaking moment. You said we could drive ourselves crazy with grief but there’s also this suggestion that maybe what we have done and what we have promised as a rich, wealthy country has not been enough. In the context of looking at that photo, is it really enough for Canada to say we’re doing our part?

Rt.Hon. Stephen Harper: Look, what I’ve said is we have to do everything. I think that is the reaction people should have. As I said we have the same reaction, Laureen and I as everybody else when we see the photo. It’s heart wrenching. It brings you right to your own family.

But it doesn’t lead to the conclusion in my mind that there’s only some things we should be doing and nothing else. Our view has been that on refugees we should do what we’re doing and we need to do more. I’ve announced that but our message is also that we need to help people who are actually there and can’t get away.

Part of the way we need to help them is to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing them and killing them. I do not know how for the life of me –


I do not know how for the life of me you look at that picture and you say, yeah we want to help that family but we want to walk away from the military coalition that’s trying to – from the military mission that’s trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people. I don’t know how for the life of me you reach that kind of conclusion. We reach the conclusion that we should be doing everything. We are doing everything and we will do more of everything. That’s our goal.


Quand Laureen et moi ont vu cette image nous avons eu la même réaction que tout le monde comme parents. On comprend ça. C’est horrible et la réaction est évidemment on devrait faire plus mais plus de quoi ? À notre avis, plus de tout, plus d’aide pour les réfugiés, plus d’aide humanitaire pour les personnes qui restent, qui demeurent là et plus pour prévenir ces massacres contre des millions de personnes par le soi-disant État Islamique.

Il est incompréhensible pour moi. On peut voir une vraie image et on peut conclure qu’on devrait faire plus de quelque chose et moins, moins de résistance à l’État Islamique, moins d’aide pour les personnes qui demeurent là invariablement. On doit faire plus et on est en train de faire plus.


Moderator : (Off microphone)

Question: You talk about the need to do more but specifically how many more resources do we have to speed up the process in expediting the refugee status of these Syrian refugees and bringing them over here? Specifically what resources are there to boost this up?

Rt.Hon. Stephen Harper: Look, I’ll repeat what I said earlier. I announced in the campaign we’re going to be putting more resources into bringing more refugees. But I repeat what I just said. That in and of itself is not a reasonable, moral reaction or solution to this problem.

There are millions and millions of people who are left behind. We have stepped up to the plate being one of the biggest humanitarian donors in the world. These humanitarian pledges are vastly undersubscribed. Most countries are simply doing their part and they need to do more.

We are also trying to prevent the violence that is at the heart of this issue, millions of people being pursued, slaughtered by the so-called Islamic State and its allies. We have to do something about that. Most of the countries in the world are doing something about that.

We are doing something about that and I don’t know how you look at these images and conclude we should walk away and let those people be killed because we don’t participate in the military engagement. I think that’s completely irresponsible. Our reaction is we’re doing everything. We need to do more. We will do more on every front.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.