Stephen Harper says the image of a dead Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach is “heartbreaking,” but it represents a “far worse” problem that requires Canada’s continued involvement in the fight against Islamic State militants.

“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 mission that’s trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people,” Harper told reporters Thursday.

“I don’t know how for the life of me you reach that kind of a conclusion.”

The Conservative leader was bombarded with questions about Canada’s response to the refugee crisis that’s now gripping Europe, following reports that the family of the boy, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, was trying to join relatives in Canada.

Asked whether Alan’s death will prompt Canada to accept more refugees, Harper said he has already promised to do that if re-elected. He repeated his message that a refugee policy alone cannot solve the plight of people in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region.

“I don’t need to tell you what we saw yesterday was a tragedy,” Harper said of the photo seen around the world. “What I need to tell you is that it’s far, far worse than that -- far worse.”

He said that, as prime minister, he has visited refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and other countries, and personally witnessed the humanitarian crisis.

He said Canada has committed to taking in refugees and providing aid, but the important thing is to stay the course with the military coalition targeting ISIS in the Middle East.

“We could drive ourselves crazy with grief. Obviously we do what we can do to help,” Harper said.

“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,” he said.

Heartbreaking images of Alan, fully clothed and face-down in the sand, have been shown on newscasts around the world.

The boy died along with his five-year-old brother, Galib, and their mother, Rehan, as they tried to make the short, but dangerous crossing from Bodrum, Turkey, to the Greek island of Kos.

The boys' father, Abdullah, survived.

The boys’ uncle in Vancouver initially said Thursday that the Kurdi family’s refugee application was rejected by Ottawa in June. But the boys’ aunt, Tima Kurdi, later clarified at a news conference that she never applied to bring Abdullah and his family to Canada.

She had applied to sponsor her other brother, Mohammad, who is now in Germany. His application for refugee status in Canada was rejected, she said.

The Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in a statement Thursday afternoon that there was “no record of an application received for Mr. Abdullah Kurdi and his family.”

The department confirmed it did receive an application for Mohammad Kurdi and his family, “but it was returned as it was incomplete as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.”

The statement was released after Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander temporarily suspended his re-election campaign to return to Ottawa and look into the case.

"The tragic photo of young Alan Kurdi and the news of the death of his brother and mother broke hearts around the world,” Alexander said in a statement early Thursday, after cancelling an appearance on CTV’s Canada AM.

“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.”

‘Canada has failed’

At a campaign stop in Toronto, an emotional Tom Mulcair said the image of Alan’s lifeless body on the beach will “stay with us for a long time.”

The NDP leader compared the disturbing picture to the famous ‘Napalm Girl’ photo that showed a screaming child running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.

“Certain images define an era,” Mulcair said. “It’s unbearable to see what we’re seeing.”

Mulcair’s voice broke and he seemed to be on the verge of tears as he described how Alan’s death affected him as a father and grandfather.

The day after he accused the Conservative government and Stephen Harper of failing to fulfill their refugee promises, Mulcair took a less partisan approach on Thursday.

“It’s too easy to start assigning blame,” he said. “The international community has failed. Canada has failed.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, said that the Tories and Chris Alexander have not done enough to help refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

“This is about doing the right thing,” he said during a campaign stop in Broussard, Que., on Thursday, adding that “all different stripes of government” have worked to bring in refugees in the past, whether it was people fleeing Uganda or Vietnam.

Trudeau said that the current Conservative government hasn’t even met its “modest targets” for refugee resettlement in the last couple of years.

“You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign,” he said. “You either have it or you don’t.”

Trudeau called on Ottawa to “immediately” accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, something he said the Liberals would do if they form a government.

In his statement Thursday, Alexander said that Canada “has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world.”

He said Canada has already resettled 22,000 refugees from Iraq and 2,300 from Syria, after promising to bring in 23,000 Iraqis and 11,300 Syrians over several years.

Harper has also said that a re-elected Conservative government would bring in 10,000 more refugees from the Middle East over the next four years.