Photo of Samar Badawi

Canada’s objection to the arrest of women’s rights activist Samar Badawi prompted a diplomatic crisis that has involved thousands of Saudi Arabian students studying here.

Saudi students who refuse their government’s call to return home may be eligible for asylum in Canada, according to legal experts.

Two of Canada’s top immigration lawyers said Thursday that the issue will turn on whether Saudi Arabia is likely to consider a student’s refusal to leave Canada as a political statement that should be punished.

“Given the relatively strong evidence of human rights abuses vis a vis Saudi Arabia, there would be a reasonable chance that someone who opted to refuse and then made a claim for asylum afterward would have a reasonably good chance of acceptance,” said immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.

“There is evidence the Saudi government doesn’t react very well when people criticize the government or refuse to comply with directions. It’s hard to predict (the ruling), but there would certainly be an arguable case.”

More than 8,000 Saudi Citizens currently have study permits in Canada, and more than 4,000 are here for short-term studies without a permit. The Saudi government has withdrawn all scholarships for its citizens to study in Canada and ordered all Saudi students to leave, including those who are funding their own education. The move is part of a diplomatic row sparked by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s call for Saudi Arabia to release a blogger and a recently imprisoned women’s rights activist.

Peter Edelmann is an immigration lawyer based in Vancouver. He said that the decision to stay in Canada would likely be only one of several factors involved in a student’s asylum claim.

“The type of student who would be willing to (defy the government order) may well have other factors that would lead to the potential for a successful refugee claim (such as) their political views or religious views,” he said.

“The fact that they don’t want to go back is often an indication. You don’t have to go far outside the strictures inside Saudi Arabia to get yourself in a lot of trouble.”

Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board contains a recent report by the U.S. State Department that documents a range of human rights abuses by the Saudi government, including executions without due process; torture; arbitrary arrests of activists, lawyers and political reformers; official discrimination against women and the criminalization of some types of sexuality.

Both Waldman and Edelmann stressed that each student’s claim would be evaluated individually according to the particular facts of their case.

Other Legal Options

Edelmann pointed out that students who want to remain in Canada have many legal options other than filing a refugee claim.

“It’s not like the Saudi government has the power to revoke study permits or kick people out of school,” he said. “These students may have other options in terms of being able to stay in Canada. They should get some advice from somebody competent before making a refugee claim.”

International students who complete a university degree or a public college are usually eligible for a post-graduation work permit that is often the first step in a successful transition to becoming a permanent resident of Canada.

Asylum is granted in Canada to people who face persecution in their home country on the basis of their race, religion, political views, nationality or because they are members of a particular social group, such as the LGBTQ community. People who are granted asylum as refugees can stay in Canada as permanent residents.

Very few Saudi citizens apply for asylum in Canada, but most claims are accepted.

Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Sean Rehaag compiles data based on access to information requests filed with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

His data shows that 71 asylum claims from Saudi citizens were decided in Canada last year. Of those, 59 claims – or 83 per cent – were approved.




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