H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington.
After Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi woman granted asylum by Canada last week, arrived in the country, she said in a statement read on her behalf by a settlement worker, “I am one of the lucky ones.” The question is: Why was she? And what does this case say about how asylum-seekers more generally are treated by Canada, in particular, and the West more generally, both politically and in the media, which covered this case so extensively?
From the outset, very little of this was really about Ms. Mohammed herself. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made their assessment, and Thailand (where she made the request for the assessment), Saudi Arabia and Canada all recognize the UNHCR’s mandate. There is no suggestion that the UNHCR made an improper assessment beyond its mandate. Even in terms of speed for the UNHCR, there is a critical resettlement fast-track option, although it is not clear if this was the option used in this case or not.
What is in question is the arbitrary nature of how things proceeded from there, which led to Ms. Mohammed being “one of the lucky ones.” Canada does have procedures for fast-tracking exceptional risk cases. But was it consideration of the risk in this case about Ms. Mohammed’s circumstances that saw her fast-tracked, and then treated so exceptionally by the government, and then significant parts of the media? Or were other factors at play?
It is important to note there is lingering public resentment in Canada vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia – particularly after the very public spat over Ottawa’s criticisms of Riyadh’s human-rights record, the Yemeni catastrophe and the Khashoggi affair. But the resentment is also about how the current government has, as yet, not extricated itself from a multibillion-dollar deal to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. And in an election year, it certainly appears that Ottawa instrumentalized Ms. Mohammed’s case to send a reminder to Riyadh on the one hand – but, more crucially, a message to voters in Canada.
Otherwise, why did Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland publicly meet and greet Ms. Mohammed at the airport? When was the last time the Minister or any other senior official did this for other individual asylum-seekers?
Moreover, beyond government, substantial attention in parts of the conservative media has focused on Ms. Mohammed for reasons that go far beyond claimed abuses. Rather, many, after the fact, have focused on portraying her as a cultural and irreligious rebel, with headlines such as “eating BACON for breakfast and grabbing a Starbucks coffee with her legs exposed” in The Daily Mail and “now onto rollie ciggies – after denouncing Islam” in The Daily Star. There are more than 25 million people designated as refugees by the United Nations – the message to them from such media coverage, if not the Canadian government, must now be clear: Persecution and abuse are less important than being portrayed as a cultural rebel and ex-Muslim. Instead of prioritizing persecution – in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – parts of the press seem to be more interested in the fetishization of a bacon-eating ex-Muslim Arab.
Regrettably, the way in which Ottawa chose to pursue this case will give either false hope or grave disappointment and misgivings to many abroad, who desperately need asylum. Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian who was acquitted by the Pakistani courts of any crime, didn’t receive this treatment. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, the Uyghurs of China – none of them seem to have warranted this response from Ottawa. Clearly, Ms. Mohammed’s case was used to make a political point – and that then opens up Ottawa to the suspicion that rather than prioritizing the most deserving case, the most high-profile case was given attention instead.
When those perceptions of the system becoming politicized become more widespread, they risk weakening the entire process around protecting asylum-seekers and refugees, rather than changing the process to protect more people around the world. Ottawa should have been far more careful about how it publicly dealt with this case and used its political capital to focus on changing the system internationally, rather than taking measures that look so cynical.
So many millions of people around the world continue to suffer: a Syrian woman seeking asylum, a Rohingya man in a refugee camp, a Uyghur fleeing persecution. All of these, and many more, remain in dire straits. There are, today, probably a lot more refugees who will suspect that the system was cynically used in Ms. Mohammed’s case, that their own pressing cases will not get fast-tracked, even though they suffer tremendously. And they will know that even if they are successful, they won’t get the same fanfare. None of that, of course, is the fault of Ms. Mohammed – but it will be Ottawa’s.