Canadian officials welcomed the Saudi asylum-seeker Rahaf Mohammed within 2 days after her story became viral on social media, while the process normally takes months or even years. An overview of Canada’s asylum procedure hints that the decision has rather political roots than humanitarian ones. It could possibly make so many other people seeking asylum in Thailand and worldwide have unrealistic expectations.
Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi woman who was granted asylum by Canada earlier this month, says she was among the lucky ones. Her quest for resettlement was watched closely by the whole world, as it was extensively covered by the media. Generally, stories of refugees seldomly receive such attention and if they do, the coverage often goes towards a negative direction, as it is referring to them as economic immigrants.
In regards to Ms. Mohammed’s case, those who were most interested in the way her story unfolded were actually people whose homes now are the detention centers for refugees in Bangkok. For them, the case of the 18-year-old asylum seeker meant they should not give up hope for a major policy turn on Thailand`s part — a country that does not recognize refugees and has no domestic laws governing them.
Thailand has been condemned for years now for not signing United Nations’ convention, recognizing refugees and for its hostility towards asylum seekers who often fall victims to the system, trapped between forced return, detention or work in the black economy. Similar is the fate of many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey who hope to be resettled like the Saudi teen but fear of their limbo extending over months or years. Overall, Western policy on refugees is not only tied to a slow and sluggish process but is also very selective.
Let’s take a look at some personal stories of other asylum-seekers
A Pakistani-Christian who currently lives in Bangkok’s biggest immigration detention center was discussing Ms. Mohammed’s case with his wife over the phone. He was amazed by the fact it took only several days for the UNCHR to determine the young girl’s refugee status before Canada stepped in with the asylum offer, while he has been locked up for several months. Can Canadian authorities explain what makes his case of less priority than this of the Saudi girl?
Even worse is the case of the Yemeni refugee Nada Ali, who has been living in limbo in Canada for the past two years. Following the example of Rahaf Mohammed, she also started tweeting about her situation, saying she was at risk of being deported back to her war-torn homeland. The 22-year-old illegally crossed into Canada in 2017 with her younger sister and says that they have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo ever since. Unfortunately, Nada didn’t earn the same media attention as the young Saudi woman, but does it mean her case can be neglected?
“I am far away from my parents, it has been two years I just want to hug my mother. All I want is a secure place to complete my studies. Nobody has helped us, nо one has listened to us, I’ve tried everything. If Canada really respected human rights, they would have come to my aid,” Ali said in an emotional video.
Some are luckier than the two Yemeni sisters – it took “only” eight months for the Syrian Hassan Al Kontar to finally be able to head to Vancouver after being granted asylum in Canada. He had been stranded in the airport’s arrival corridor since February, when he was refused permission to board a flight to Ecuador and was then denied entry by Cambodia and Malaysia. After overstaying his visa in Malaysia and with no option to return, Hassan was trapped in limbo, in a part of the airport without restaurants or shops. He was forced to sleep under stairwells, shower in a disabled toilet and depend on the generosity of airline staff who donated meals, but Canadian authorities didn’t see this as a reason to speed up the procedure.
And so here comes the question – why did the Canadian government let the Saudi girl jump the queue.
Would Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have personally welcomed the teen at Toronto’s Pearson Airport if Mohammed were a Rohingya woman trying to escape ethnic cleansing in Burma, or a Chinese Uyghur Muslim? And when was the last time the Minister or any other senior official did this for other individual asylum-seekers?
Mohammed’s story definitely attracts the attention – she barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok’s airport earlier this month and started sharing her story on social media, claiming her family had made her life a living hell. Her father, who traveled to Bangkok to bring her home, denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, according to Thai police. It is rather unclear how she managed to reach Thailand in the first place. She had been on a family holiday in Kuwait where, after escaping from her relatives, she boarded a flight to Bangkok with the intention to fly to Australia as a final destination.
At this point of the story, one can’t help but start looking for answers of questions like how did a young woman under constant watch buy an overseas air ticket, obtain a visa to Australia and board a plane. Surely this is one aspect of the story which to a certain extent was neglected by media and government officials.
It is worth mentioning that currently, the general mood in Canada towards Saudi Arabia is not particularly positive. The Canadian government is still involved in a multibillion-dollar deal in selling armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, which further contributes to the public resentment. And it seems to be an easy move to sensationalize Ms. Mohammed’s case and thus send a message to voters in Canada, as elections are approaching.
Clearly, the Saudi teen’s case was used to make a political point. This, however, casts a shadow over Ottawa’s image and ability to prioritize the most deserving case instead of choosing the most high-profile one. If this becomes a widespread perception of the system, it might lead to a weakened process for the protection of asylum-seekers and refugees. In times when the world desperately needs to change this process and protect more people across the globe, Ottawa’s move is rather cynical. And the worst part of it is that Rahaf Mohammed’s case will give either false hope or grave disappointment to many abroad, who desperately need asylum.