Canada’s refugee fast-track: Humanitarian urgency or political games?

(Kayleigh Valentine / The McGill Policy Association)

(Kayleigh Valentine / The McGill Policy Association)

Driven by her desire to escape abuse, 18-year-old Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun used Twitter to draw attention to her plight after barricading herself for a week in her hotel room in Thailand. Her tweet, which garnered worldwide support, became the impetus to her obtaining freedom. While countries such as Australia and Canada participated in discussions surrounding al-Qunun’s pending legal status, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared her to be a refugee and requested her protection. In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Government of Canada had responded to the UNHCR’s plea to grant al-Qunun asylum.

Current policy

The current expedited policy for granting refugee claims falls under the jurisdiction of the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. According to its policies, only claims from certain countries are eligible for fast-track screenings for refugee protection without a hearing. Such countries include Afghanistan, Burundi, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. In light of the urgency of al-Qunun’s circumstances, the UNHCR dealt with her case on a “fast-track emergency basis” and sent a plea to countries requesting that they grant her asylum. In partnership with governments, the UNHCR can expedite high priority cases to facilitate resettlement only when individuals are facing immediate life-threatening situations or are at risk of being threatened in their home country. One of the fundamental principles of refugee status and asylum is the international principle of non-refoulement in which the “most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.”

Criticism and future refugee claims

Officials have expressed concern over Canada’s decision to grant al-Qunun asylum. More specifically, former diplomats have indicated the potential repercussions on future policies regarding asylum seekers, including the possibility that the Saudi teen’s successful escape thanks to online outcry would inspire others to copy her. Others questioned the motive behind granting al-Qunun an expedited refugee status in Canada. Calling it “political football,” Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, warned about the possible deterioration of diplomatic relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia given the symbolism behind granting the teen refugee status and denouncing the gender inequalities and abusive treatment that she was facing. Her plight draws attention to the inevitably political nature of granting refugee status to asylum seekers and welcoming them into Canada. Therefore, selectively granting refugee status to highly publicized cases like al-Qunun’s while the appeals of many others in similar situations remain in limbo leads us to consider the need for a more consistent process for adjudicating refugee claims.