Rahaf Mohammed addresses the media at a press conference. January 15,2019. Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

What does Rahaf Mohammed’s journey tell us about the current refugee regime?

One of the biggest news stories of 2019 so far has undoubtedly been the journey of Rahaf Mohammed. International media and the Canadian government alike have presented Mohammed’s story as evidence of Canada’s long-standing support for women and refugees. But is there more to Rahaf Mohammed’s story than meets the eye? It is my opinion that the portrayal of Rahaf Mohammed in the media and Canada’s response to her refugee claim is indicative of broader challenges in the current refugee regime.

Rahaf Mohammed, who recently dropped her family name of Alqunun, captured international attention when, in an attempt to flee to Australia as a refugee from her home country of Saudi Arabia, she was intercepted in Thailand. Her passport was seized and she was threatened with return to Saudi Arabia, leading the 18 year old to barricade herself in her Thai hotel room and make a plea for assistance over social media. Mohammed’s case quickly received international attention and within days of her original plea she was assessed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and flown to Canada where she was granted refugee status.

The response to these events has been widespread and while this article will delve deeper into some of the specific implications of Mohammed’s case it is worthwhile to consider the broader context. The domestic Canadian response has been diverse. Some journalists have applauded the young Saudi woman for her bravery and expressed pride in the Canadian government. Others have stated that Mohammed “jumped the queue,” of Canada’s immigration policies and while deserving of refuge, believe she has managed to game the system.

My own feelings on the situation are complex. As an advocate for women’s rights and refugee protection I am glad to see that Rahaf Mohammed has made it to safety and I am proud that my own nation offered her asylum. I was raised on the idea that Canada is a nation of immigrants and I remain proud of our humanitarian reputation in cases such as these. However, I also recognize that Rahaf Mohammed’s case and Canada’s response is problematic in several ways. Mohammed’s ability to buy a flight to Australia, acquire a hotel room, and utilize her smart phone to make a social media plea distinguishes her from many asylum seekers who lack the means to make a similar journey. Furthermore, the manner in which Mohammed’s case garnered attention challenges my own conception of how refugee status is granted. Mohammed’s case indicates to many asylum seekers and would be refugees that the key to gaining asylum is to launch a compelling Twitter campaign. While these aspects could all be further investigated, I want to focus on how the representation of refugees by the media, and politicization of refugees more broadly coalesced to bring Rahaf Mohammed to Canada.

Rahaf Mohammed’s journey to Canada was highly mediatized through both her own means and that of the international media. Mohammed made a series of videos, which were posted on Twitter and Instagram wherein she described the confiscation of her passport and her decision to barricade herself in her Thai hotel room. The mainstream media responded to her pleas in interesting, and in my view, important ways. The press focussed on Mohammed’s age and gender, specifically detailing factors that make Saudi Arabia a difficult place for a young woman to live in. It begs the question- if Rahaf Mohammad had been an adult man making social media pleas of a similar nature and severity would the media have been equally captivated?

Refugees have for decades, not been treated equally in media, but have been categorized as either “good” (and therefore deserving) or “bad” (and undeserving). Women and children have long fallen into the former category. For example, when reporters convey the severity or tragedy of a refugee crisis, figures cite the number of women and children affected, as audiences consider these groups to be the most vulnerable. Contrastingly, when male refugees are described in news media, they are most often portrayed as dangerous and aggressive.

Consider the media’s coverage of Alan Kurdi[1]and, contrasting, of male asylum seekers in Hungary during the 2016 European Refugee Crisis. When a photo of Alan Kurdi was published worldwide, a powerful narrative focussing on Kurdi’s innocence and youth led many countries to shift their asylum policies towards accepting greater numbers of refugees. Contrastingly, when young male asylum seekers arrived at the Hungarian border, they were largely portrayed as a “horde” of foreign men trying to gain access to the European Union. Hungary soon after erected a fence along their Southern border to curb asylum claims. Considering the broader representation of refugees in the media, it is reasonable to conclude that Rahaf Mohammed’s social media pleas were impactful not only due to her plight, but that her age and gender functioned to make her a sympathetic case and most likely contributed to her achieving refugee status in Canada.

Examples of how refugees have been portrayed as either innocent or dangerous in the news media. Notice the Guardian’s focus on the innocence of a child, and the Sun’s portrayal of adult men as “illegal”.

Additionally, Mohammed’s use of social media is significant. Media representation of refugees often fails to be impactful as audiences struggle to identify with persons in far away lands affected by war and disaster. Narratives and statistics presented by journalists often fail to emotionally invigorate a readership as the audience has difficulty identifying with the struggle of a refugee and language barriers decrease the ability for audience to directly relate. Rahaf Mohammed’s use of social media however, allowed the public to learn of her plight through platforms they were familiar with, closing the distance between hereand there. Mohammed spoke English, wore Western clothes, and communicated through Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, allowing her audience to relate to her plight in a way that is often difficult for other asylum cases. Rahaf Mohammed’s age, gender, and her medium of communication all coalesced to garner strong media attention and to make her case relatable, factors which undoubtedly influenced her fast-tracked refugee status.

One need only look at the experience of other female refugees to realize how unique Rahaf Mohammad’s situation was. Consider the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blaspheming the prophet Mohammad. While her sentence was later overturned, Bibi has been in hiding in Pakistan for many months searching for opportunities to claim refugee status. Bibi’s case has been highly mediatized and her struggle well documented, yet no offer of asylum has been presented from the Canadian government, or any other state. There is also the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, a Saudi woman who fled her country but was stopped while in transit in the Philippines. Similar to Rahaf Mohammad she posted a video on Twitter outlining her plight, but her cause fell largely on deaf ears and she was later sent back to Saudi Arabia. While Canada has trumpeted its reputation as a defender of refugee’s and women’s rights, these cases show that Rahaf Mohammed’s case was the exception and not the rule.

Canadian-Saudi relations have noticeably cooled since Canada criticized Saudi Arabia’s treatment of activists. The acceptance of Rahaf Mohammad as a refugee in Canada can therefore be seen as a political move and not simply a humanitarian one. Mohammad’s case allowed Canada to not only proclaim their support for women and girls but to implicitly criticise Saudi Arabia. In effect, Rahaf Mohammad has become a political prop for the Liberal government to showcase their reputation as humanitarians and human rights defenders and, in an election year, demonstrate their firm stance on Canadian values.

Canada receives thousands of asylum applications, most of which are placed into a years long queue. What these other applications lack is the media attention and political opportunism that Rahaf Mohammad’s case presented, demonstrating that it was Rahaf’s politicization that made her case so compelling for the Canadian Government. The Rohingyas of Myanmar, the Uyghurs of China, and the hundreds of people crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe have not received the same response from Ottawa that young Rahaf Mohammad did, indicating that Canada chose not the most deserving case, but the most high profile and the case that would make the strongest political statement. This evidence collectively demonstrates how politics has skewed the current refugee regime away from original humanitarian purpose and has made it a tool for political grandstanding.

Rahaf Mohammad demonstrates what many have already known, that the current refugee regime is far from a meritocracy and is steeped in politicisation. The politicisation of refugees works hand in hand with the way asylum seekers are represented in the media as either passive victims of fate or opportunistic migrants. However, there is progress on the horizon. The Global Compact for Migration was signed by 164 countries last year and aims to improve cooperation on issues of migration, demonstrating that there is a broad political will to collaborate to protect people on the move. In the case of Canada, I remain conflicted as I am both proud of our international reputation and glad that Rahaf Mohammad has found a safe place to live, while also aware of the pitfalls that come with politicising humanitarian efforts. However, I am hopeful that the Global Compact indicates a broader shift towards humanitarian protection without politicization.

[1]Alan Kurdi was a 3-year-old Syrian boy who’s photo made global headlines after he drowned on September 2, 2015 and his body was discovered on a Turkish beach. His photo, originally taken by Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir, was published worldwide and stimulated public and political conversation on the refugee crisis.

Human rights advocate, international politics nerd. Taking a closer look at international development and humanitarian aid, and challenging the status quo.