Saturday, January 19, 2019

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Manipulating the refugee system

Typical refugee/asylum seeker?
No – quite the opposite, in fact – but she knew how to manipulate the system and within days was being welcomed at Toronto Airport by the Canadian Foreign Minister
You’ve got to hand it to Rahaf al-Qunun. One day, she’s just a Saudi teenager without any claim to distinction holidaying overseas with her family. A few days later, she’s winging her way to a Western country (Canada) where she’s been accepted as a ‘refugee’ and will receive every assistance in settling into that country.

It sure beats hazardous trips across the Mediterranean or through Eastern Europe and waiting for yonks for asylum applications to be processed, not to mention the risk of failure in that endeavour.

How did she do it? It was all quite simple, really. She absconded from her family while on holiday in Kuwait and boarded a plane bound for Thailand. 

Upon arrival in Bangkok as a transit passenger she locked herself in a hotel room and got straight onto social media announcing that she had repudiated Islam and that her family would kill her should she return home, and demanded that she meet with a UNHCR official with a view to being given asylum in the West – preferably in Australia, the US, UK or Canada (anglophone countries; her English is good).

The Thais, initially inclined to put her onto a flight back to Kuwait, stalled when a UNHCR representative agreed to meet with her. That person declared Rahaf to be a genuine refugee (wow, that was quick!). Then Justin Trudeau came along and did his knight in shining armour bit by telling the world Canada would take her. A happy ending for both her and the Thais, to whom she was likely to have become a thorn in the side had the UNHCR and Canada not played along leaving them facing widespread condemnation had they forcibly repatriated her.

Let’s go back a few steps. Here we have a sophisticated, well-educated 18-year-old from an affluent family who lived in the lap of comfort, if not luxury, in a politically stable, peaceful, low-crime country – a profile diametrically opposed to that of the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers. The family was not in the government’s bad books – her father is a town governor – and she had absolutely nothing to fear in terms of ‘persecution’. Admittedly, apostasy is severely frowned upon in this staunchly Islamic state, and telling the world about her renunciation of Islam would certainly have caused problems for her upon returning to Saudi Arabia. But her timing has to raise sceptical eyebrows. One may be forgiven for suspecting that this renunciation was not based on any genuine reflection on religion but was a ploy to get her into a Western country. Another button she pushed was in relation to the status of women in her home country. It worked like a charm.

The public conception of what constitutes a refugee/asylum seeker appears to be expanding. Not so many years ago, the terms conjured up an image of someone fleeing war or systematic persecution targeting specific groups of people defined by ethnicity or religion. Of late, there has been a popular mood-swing in favour of regarding anyone supposedly getting a rough deal at home as a bona fide refugee/asylum seeker. ‘Escaping poverty’ is joining ‘escaping genocide’ as grounds for seeking refugee status.

But this girl’s case does not fit in at all well with either of these – there is just no way that her situation can be deemed to be in the same category as that of a Syrian or Malian asylum seeker. By falling for her little scheme, what precedent are we setting? Are we sending the message that if you are young and female, articulate and well versed in the use of social media (in English), and come from a Muslim country while now renouncing Islam, we will welcome you with open arms as a ‘refugee’? Are we adding ‘[young] women escaping from a Muslim country’ to the list of grounds for asylum status?

That certainly seems to be the Canadian position. Rahaf was greeted at the airport by a beaming Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Foreign Minister – a smug poke in the eye for the Saudis from the government minister who, of all government ministers, would be expected to behave in a diplomatic manner towards what is, after all, a friendly country.

"It's obvious that the oppression of women is not a problem that can be resolved in a day, but rather than cursing the darkness we believe in lighting a single candle. Where we can save a single woman, a single person that's a good thing to do." - Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Foreign Minister (right).
There is a perturbing immaturity – childishness, even – about the way the Canadian PM and FM have acted throughout this farcical affair. Whatever their personal feelings about another sovereign nation’s domestic laws and policies, people at the top of the political hierarchy in a supposedly civilised country simply should not behave in this off-hand manner, especially when that nation is both a friend and an ally. Other than being discourteous to the extreme in terms of international protocol, there is the provocation of a clear intention to meddle in the internal affairs of that other nation. Of course, being of the ultra-PC kind, they consider themselves as being absolutely right and those others as being absolutely wrong, and that gives them the ‘right’ to act in this reprehensible manner. I am no fan of Saudi Arabia, but I am in full agreement with them when they call this behaviour totally unacceptable. 

Other than having apparently stretched the definition of ‘refugee’ to the point of absurdity, this caper has the potential to further damage the fragile relations between the West and the Muslim world – there was already little love lost between Canada and Saudi Arabia owing to the former’s open criticism of the latter’s laws and policies concerning women. The way Muslims in general are likely to see it is that by bending over backwards to accommodate this girl’s demands we are enticing other young women in their countries to apply for asylum on the pretext of being in mortal danger should they return home because they have renounced their faith – something we are thereby encouraging them to do. “They are luring our girls away from us, and from our religion, and we all know why, don’t we,” will be the talk of the town in Riyadh and other Muslim capitals. Their distrust of the West, chronically at a low ebb, will grow. Other actors on the international stage will be eager to capitalise on that.

At home, there will be a backlash to the detriment of girls and young women as families tighten the strictures to which their young female members are subject. Saudi fathers – and mothers – will think twice about letting their daughters out of the country where they can interact with Westerners. I wouldn’t be surprised if we noticed a drop in Saudi female enrolments at the American university I work at here in ‘liberal’ Lebanon.

This bizarre case puts the spotlight on the extent to which we in the West have lost the plot when it comes to the broad refugee/asylum seeker/illegal immigration issue. It’s time we got back to the original script. But with Western leaders of the ilk of Justin Trudeau, don’t hold your breath in anticipation of that happening any time soon.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at 

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