Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland welcomed 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun at Toronto’s airport on January 12, 2019 calling her “a brave new Canadian.” Canada quickly granted asylum to the teenager upon a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Alqunun had flown to Thailand and barricaded herself in an airport hotel room tweeting that she was afraid her family would kill her if she was sent home to Saudi Arabia. Her father arrived in Thailand but the teenager refused to see him and the situation was considered urgent. The case had gained worldwide attention.
Not much to lose in Canada-Saudi relationship, says analyst
There was a lot of upside and very little downside to Canada’s accepting the teenager, according to Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo and analyst of mid-eastern international affairs. “The upside was an opportunity for us to showcase our commitment to international human rights, (and) to our feminist foreign policy agenda. And, to be honest, I think it’s also about diverting away from some of our own domestic challenges.”
Momani says there was little for Canada to lose given that relations with Saudi Arabia “pretty much hit rock bottom last summer.” The Saudis were infuriated after Freeland, over Twitter, called for the release women’s rights activists who had been recently arrested. In response, the Saudi crown prince expelled Canada’s ambassador and called home his envoy to Canada. He also suspended Saudi flights to Toronto and ordered thousands of students and medical patients to leave Canada.
Prof. Bessma Momani says there was “much upside and little downside” to Canada in quickly granting asylum to Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.Listen
Canadian refugee policy is unique
Alqunun’s case may encourage other Saudi Arabian women to try to leave the country. The rights of women there are severely restricted and they may not travel without the permission of a male relative. However, if they can get out, Canada may be a particularly attractive destination.
“Canada…is unique in that, unlike most countries, we accept domestic violence as a legitimate claim for asylum,” says Momani. Claims are very rarely handled as quickly as Alqunun’s was. Momani thinks her’s got so much media attention in part because of the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. This has attracted worldwide media attention to Saudi Arabia and its human rights record.
“Many women have done exactly as Raha did and it didn’t garner this international media attention,” says Momani. “So, Raha is not the first (to seek asylum) and she won’t be the last.”