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.

How did this all begin?

Why is this problematic?

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, refugees, and the media

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.

How is politics involved?

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.

Where do we go from here?

[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.

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