The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada still has a lot to do for women and refugees

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, center, was greeted by the media and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 12. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Nora Loreto is a Canadian freelance writer and author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.”

A wave of relief and joy washed over Canadian social media this past weekend when Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun’s flight touched down at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, starting the 18-year-old’s new life as an asylum claimant in Canada.

Alqunun’s story went viral when she tweeted from a hotel room in Bangkok, saying she was trying to run away from her abusive family in Saudi Arabia. As her plight captured international attention, Canada and Australia offered her asylum.

When she walked through the doors for international arrivals, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland held her. It was a similar scene that produced the images that made Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famous in 2015, when he personally greeted Syrian refugees at the same airport, and helped equip them with the requisite gear to survive Canadian winters. It was a heartwarming montage of Canadian warmth and solidarity with the world’s oppressed people. It also stood in stark contrast to the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Europe and the United States.

These photo ops are quintessential to the Liberal brand. They make sure that a good deed does not go unnoticed. Alqunun and tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have been welcomed to Canada: good news for these individuals and good news for Canadians who support and appreciate Canada’s openness to the world.

But if you zoom out from the photo op, the picture becomes far less rosy.

Alqunun has escaped her alleged abuse and is now in a country with more options than Saudi Arabia to keep herself secure, but sadly, Canada isn’t totally safe for women either. According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory, at least 148 women were killed in 2018. That danger isn’t evenly distributed. One study released in 2018 examined domestic homicides between 2010 and 2015 and found that 53 percent of women killed were either Indigenous, women who lived in rural or remote regions, minors, immigrants or refugees. Canadian single women experience violence at four times the rate of women who are married or in a common-law relationship. Girls and women between the ages of 15 and 24 experience the highest rates of violence when compared with all other ages.

And Canada hasn’t done enough to support the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees we’ve welcomed. While some people are thriving, many Syrians who came through the private sponsorship program have been abandoned by the individuals who sponsored them. Canada’s refugee system is under tremendous strain: the immigration and refugee board estimates that it needs $140 million per year to process higher-than-usual refugee claims, almost four times its current budget. The backlog has pushed wait times to up to 21 months before a claim is even heard by the board. Dozens of positions at the board have been vacant since 2016 because of delays in Cabinet approvals.

The higher-than-usual asylum claims have triggered a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment from far-right media personalities and politicians. While the Trudeau Liberals have continued to defend their slightly increased immigration targets, in October Canada Border Services Agency was instructed to increase the number of deportations by 35 percent.

These facts can’t be hidden by staged photo ops.

Finally, there is the more obvious contradiction of the government’s embrace of Alqunum: Canada’s military sales to Saudi Arabia. In the weeks that followed the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the longstanding call from human rights activists to cancel selling light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia took on a new urgency. Freeland remained steadfast, saying that Canada had no plans to cancel the sale. As 2018 came to a close, the government’s tone on the deal shifted. Trudeau said that they were investigating “a way out” of the arms deal. Perhaps Freeland’s presence alongside Alqunum signals that they’re considering this seriously.

The Liberals hope that a feel-good story can them buy enough political goodwill to obscure the systemic issues that lurk under the surface. And, judging by the overwhelmingly positive coverage of Alqunum’s arrival, their plan has, once again, worked.

But for everyone caught in the forces of Canada’s systemic failures, these stunts do nothing to make their situation better.

Read more:

Sarah Aziza: How Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun embodies the struggles of many Saudi women

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