Screenshot of Rahaf's livestream when she barricaded herself in a Thailand hotel room, demanding to speak to the United Nations.

Editorial: One lucky refugee

  • January 18, 2019

There’s nothing like a feel-good story to kick off a new year, and stories seldom get more uplifting than a dramatic rescue involving a teenage girl who feared for her life.

So most Canadians are justifiably pleased and proud that the government intervened quickly to grant asylum to Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi who barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room and, as you’d expect from someone that age, activated Twitter to tap out an international SOS. Canada responded immediately and just days later Alqunun landed in Toronto to a welcome as warm as the day was cold.

It was an undeniably happy outcome but let’s not be fooled. Alqunun’s good fortune in no way typifies the ordeal of a typical refugee. She found freedom in an adopted country and made it look easy. She won the refugee lottery, the one case among more than 25 million worldwide refugees that was settled in days without the misery of a treacherous journey or a long exile of despair in a refugee camp.

Alqunun fled from her family in early January while on vacation in Kuwait. After flying to Thailand, she was denied asylum and placed in an airport hotel. Fearing deportation to Saudi Arabia, Alqunun barricaded the door and launched a Twitter campaign that attracted international attention with convincing claims that she had been abused and could face death if returned to the fiercely patriarchal country.

The United Nations refugee agency promptly took up her cause and, with Canada on board, expedited a file that, in other circumstances, would have taken months or even years to sort out. All this worked out splendidly for Alqunun and only a cold-hearted person would resent her good fortune. We wish her prosperity and happiness in Canada.

At the same time, we remain mindful of the millions of world refugees whose stories of despair are not being tapped out to sympathetic Twitter audiences. What about them? Canada alone has a backlog of more than 67,000 refugee-protection claims. Thousands of these come from UN-designated refugees who are trapped in squalid UN camps in Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands more come from asylum seekers who are already inside Canada and awaiting rulings that could take up to two years. 

The speed at which Alqunun earned a Canadian rubber stamp should not be misread as an example of a system that is running smoothly. Quite the opposite. Although it has been improving, the Canadian process to adjudicate applications is unfairly and painfully slow for thousands of refugees who are awaiting rulings. 

What the Alqunun affair does demonstrate, however, is that governments and bureaucracies can move at lightning speed when spurred by the media and the polls to get busy. Her case proves compassion is important but it takes political will to get results.

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