Speedy acceptance of Saudi shows refugee system’s flaws

Who would not wish Rahaf Mohammed well? The 18-year-old Saudi wants to escape the constraints of her family, her native country and her religion.

She seems in that regard, a very normal teen who wants what most Canadians would regard as a very normal life.

But the Liberal government’s decision to grant her refugee status virtually sight unseen — in effect, letting her jump the queue — is unwise.

It confirms what many critics of the refugee system have charged: that it is unfair, driven by politics and open to manipulation.

Would she have made it to Canada if she had been less adept at social media? Would Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have personally welcomed the teen at Toronto’s Pearson Airport if Mohammed, who no longer uses her family name Alqunun, were not an international media celebrity?

Would she be here at all if she were, say, an 18-year-old Rohingya woman without a social media following who was trying to escape ethnic cleansing in Burma?

The questions answer themselves.

Mohammed’s story is compelling. From a hotel room in Bangkok’s airport, where she barricaded herself earlier this month, she claimed her family had made her life hell.

She told the New York Times that her brother beat her. She told the BBC she was afraid her family would kill her.

She told Agence France-Presse that her family had once locked her in her room for six months after she got a haircut they didn’t like.

She announced on Twitter that she was abandoning her Muslim faith and then tweeted that she feared she might be killed for revealing this intention. Apostasy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

She said life in Saudi Arabia, where women must receive permission from a male relative to do the most mundane of tasks, was like being in prison.

She was an internet sensation.

Was she persecuted? Her father, who travelled to Bangkok to bring her home, denied physically abusing her, according to Thai police. He also denied trying to force her into an arranged marriage.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, however, believed the teen’s account and declared her a legitimate refugee. This is usually the first stage in resettlement to countries like Canada.

Exactly how she made it to Thailand remains murky. She had been on a family holiday in Kuwait. There she eluded her relatives and boarded a flight to Bangkok, with the intention of travelling on to Australia.

How did a young woman under constant watch buy an overseas air ticket, obtain a visa to Australia and lam it to the airport?

She told the New York Times that she used a friend’s credit card. She told the Star and CBC that she slipped off early in the morning when her relatives were asleep.

The Australian website news.com.au says that Mohammed had been planning her escape for months with the help of overseas friends.

However, she was stopped by Thai authorities in Bangkok’s airport and put up in a hotel preparatory to being sent home.

From there, she launched her Twitter campaign.

In the end, both Canada and Australia offered her sanctuary. But the Australians insisted that she go through its standard vetting process first.

Canada waived its usual rules and accepted her as a refugee unconditionally. So she came here. Usually, it takes up to two years for Canada to process a UN refugee claim.

For Mohammed, this is a clear win. A similar case two years ago, in which a Saudi woman flew to Manila to try and claim asylum in Australia, did not work out as well. That woman was sent home and never heard from again.

For Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, it is also a win. It burnishes Trudeau’s feminist credentials and manages to poke Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime in the eye without Canada having to give up lucrative arms sales to that country.

For Canada’s beleaguered refugee system, however, this story is not good news. It demonstrates that the rules don’t matter if the subject has enough media appeal. It is a reminder that when it comes to accepting asylum seekers, politics dominate.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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