The case of a Saudi teen whose flight from her allegedly abusive family captured international attention is a rare one where circumstances aligned to grant her swift protection in Canada, but others in similar situations can’t count on the same response, immigration experts said Monday.
Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun shot into the spotlight earlier this month when she fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, then barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and tweeted that she feared for her life if she returned home.
Alqunun landed in Toronto on Saturday after the Canadian government said it had agreed to resettle her at the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She is expected to make a public statement on Tuesday.
While her success may encourage others facing a similar plight to seek asylum, there are too many variables at play to know how they would be received, experts in refugee settlement said, adding the vast majority of cases take years to process.
“The Thai authorities opted to pursue a protection path in the case of Rahaf Mohammed but no one can guarantee that that will happen in the future with any degree of consistency or frequency,” said Sharry Aiken, an expert in migration law and policy at Queen’s University.
“So while there may be, in the immediate aftermath of her case, further attempts, my guess is that we can’t count on those attempts being successful in the same way.”
She pointed to the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, another Saudi woman who left her family in Kuwait in 2017 but was stopped while in transit in the Philippines. With the help of a Canadian traveller, Lasloom posted a video on Twitter outlining her plight but media outlets reported that she was sent back to Saudi Arabia shortly afterwards.
Some countries, such as Canada, may be influenced if they know a situation is playing out in the public eye but it’s unclear to what extent that matters for so-called transit states like Thailand and the Philippines, Aiken said.
“It’s important to understand that it’s not every Twitter campaign that’s going to result in effective action,” she said.
Chantal Desloges, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, said that while Canada should be applauded for taking in Alqunun, the decision may have “troubling implications” for others awaiting help.
“I worry that it’s going to incentivize other people to think that they can bombard organizations and the Canadian government on social media and somehow try to get that same preferential treatment for themselves,” she said.
“It’s opening up a bit of a can of worms and those people are justifiably going to be thinking to themselves, ‘Well it worked for her, why isn’t it working for me?'”
The federal government always says refugee resettlement takes time but cases like this one show it can be a matter of political willpower, she said.
Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, acknowledged Monday that Alqunun’s case is an unusual one.
“Most cases of course take a long time to process and so on but there are exceptional cases in which UNHCR calls on Canada to provide urgent protection to women particularly…who are caught in a very serious and dangerous situation and need urgent protection,” he said.
Craig Damian Smith, an associate director at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Global Migration Lab, said Alqunun’s case has undoubtedly brought attention to the conditions many women face in countries such as Saudi Arabia, but it will likely not improve their situation.
“It could also mean that there’s a crackdown on their ability to travel,” he said. “This is something that you see with oppressive countries in general from the Cold War to the present — you don’t want to give your ideological enemies spectacular wins.”
Aiken, the immigration law expert from Queen’s University, said Canada could also do much better on other aspects of refugee resettlement, noting the country is standing firm on its decision to block prospective refugees coming through the United States from other countries.
“We offered protection to one refugee but there are thousands of prospective refugees attempting to flee the United States right now — not from the U.S. but from third countries — and we are not providing them with the opportunity to pursue asylum claims in Canada,” she said.
“It’s important to understand that amongst the migrant population seeking admission to Canada, there are women just like Rahaf Mohammed who we are not accepting.”
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press