Interview discussing Rahaf Al-Qunun with Ryan Jespersen AM 630 CHED January 14, 2019

Ryan Jespersen:               … in just a moment. Wanted to bring you this. Of course, you know the story by now if you’ve been paying attention to the news cycle. Canada granting asylum to a Saudi woman that says essentially that her future involved death. It says she said that she was going to be killed; Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun saying that Canada essentially saved her life. Well, this morning Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, spoke to my colleagues at Global News Radio 640 in Toronto, says he would have handled this situation differently.

Dennis Horak:                    I would not have advised that Minister go out to meet her. Or if she did, to go to her but not in front of the cameras. But I mean, a Minister is going to go there for his cameras, or are you going to go in front of it? That’s politics, I get that. But I would advise not. I think this should be low profile, especially … I don’t think there’s a huge amount of damage, but the [inaudible 00:00:54] said on Saturday it’s about going forward, and do we continue to make this a media-politico issue. Do we try and use it as a diplomatic mallet to bash the Saudis? I mean, they’re going to think will sort of have a longer term impact on, a more intense impact on the possible efforts to rebuild the relationship.

Dennis Horak:                    I don’t think it’s … There’s nothing to be gained by that. There’s nothing to be gained for her. As you mentioned, she’s been through an ordeal; she’s got a long road ahead of her in terms of trying to establish herself here in Canada. I don’t think it serves her interests, it doesn’t serve Canada’s interests to make her the poster child for everything that’s wrong with Saudi Arabia.

Ryan Jespersen:               That was Canada’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, in conversation with the morning team at Global News Radio 640 in Toronto. Raj Sharma is an immigration lawyer, a partner at Stewart Sharma Harsanyi. Raj, welcome to the show.

Raj Sharma:                        Thanks for having me on, and happy new year.

Ryan Jespersen:               Happy new year to you as well. Generally speaking, we’ll speak generally before we get into some of the specifics here, what do you make of this story and how Canada has managed it?

Raj Sharma:                        The story itself, I can see why it’s attracted global attention. You have a young woman, she’s 18-years old, she’s apparently renounced Islam, she fears death at the hands of her family, and there’s credible, objective basis supporting that fear. She sought to flee, she went to Thailand; she had a ticket on to Australia and she was stopped there. And essentially it was social media, it was social media that brought her plight to the attention of the world and stopped her removal from Thailand back to Kuwait, where her family was. Her father and brother actually showed up in Thailand as well. The UNCR made an emergency, sort of urgent decision and recognized her a person in need of protection. And while Australia was apparently going through some degree of due diligence, Canada stepped up and granted her resettlement here on an expedited and emergency basis.

Ryan Jespersen:               I guess one of the bigger questions here is whether or not this was politicking on behalf of the federal government, on behalf of the liberals; political football, so to speak; using this specific circumstance to make a larger point of Canada’s perspective on Saudi human rights. People quite rightfully I supposed questioning what the possible implications could be as well as we take a look at Canada’s current diplomatic … What do we need to call it, a skirmish with China right now, although it sure is serious business for a few Canadians that are detained. How can you see this impacting Canada’s relationship with the Saudis? Is it something that you’d be concerned about?

Raj Sharma:                        … Let’s go back a couple of years, and I think that this government is very much aware of the power of images. Let’s not forget the image of the drowned child, Alan Kurdi, whose family had attempted to come to Canada in the past, and how that impacted the last federal election. So was this some degree of virtue signaling by the liberal government? It may or may not have been. …At the same time, what do you do when you’re faced with this type of situation? We know, we know for a fact that, for example, another Saudi woman, Dina Lasloom , tried to get to Australia and make an asylum claim. She was stopped en route; she was returned to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, she has not been heard of or heard from again. …

Raj Sharma:                        And then, of course, and I do take issue with this, was Minister Chrystia Freeland greeting her upon arrival with a throng of reporters. And I think that I agree with the former Ambassador, which is, one, I think this should have been kept a little bit lower profile perhaps in terms of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but I think it should be kept to a lower profile for the safety of this young woman. We know that Saudi Arabia has little qualms in going after dissidents or activists within Saudi Arabia or outside of Saudi Arabia, so that was a little bit disappointing.

Raj Sharma:                        And again, it was Justin Trudeau who criticized Stephen Harper andthe Prime Minister’s Office of that government for seeking out photo opportunities with refugee claimants on the eve of the previous election. So there is an air of concern that I have as to the actions of our government. I certainly don’t take any issue with providing protection to someone that needs, who needs it. I would have gone about it in a different way.

Ryan Jespersen:               In other words, discretion may have spoken more loudly or may have sort of given it more of an … I don’t want to say integrity, but would have at least quelled so much of the criticism that this was something that was being used as a political tool by the liberals.

Raj Sharma:                        Well, look, I understand. I understand why this was salient. Saudi Arabia and the Canadian relationship is already top of mind. We have Khashoggi; we have the murdered, dismembered Saudi journalist in Turkey, apparently at the orders of MBS, Mohammed bin Salman. It is somewhat unique you have a young Muslim woman who’s renounced Islam. It is credible in that what she fears is completely backed up by the objective evidence. But at the same time, you do have other individuals like Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi is a Christian woman in Pakistan accused of blasphemy, who has been in jail for the better part of a decade, and was only freed by the Supreme Court. And now there’s widespread protests in that country calling for her death.

Raj Sharma:                        So we are picking and choosing, I suppose, and I suppose in this age of the Kardashians and this age of social media, someone like Rahaf will succeed, and perhaps someone like Asia Bib won’t.

Ryan Jespersen:               Raj, and you touch on a very important point, which is that … and we could have this conversations in a number of different contexts, whether we’re talking about so-called undocumented immigrants or those that are seeking asylum, refugees, so to speak, and much of the conversation centers around people that, Canadians making [inaudible 00:08:02] that some folks are jumping the queue, are not doing it correctly. There will always be compelling stories for people to gain access to Canada in a number of different contexts. But certainly, this is something … And I mean, the Canadian public will take a look at one circumstance and say why this person, this family? Why not this person or this family? You must see it all the time in your role as an immigration lawyer. I mean, this is what you do.

Raj Sharma:                        It’s tough to then explain to Canadians, my Canadian clients who, their family members are in refugee camps and displaced outside of their country, and they’re seeking to bring them under, for example, a group five, a private sponsorship, and they’re waiting years. They’re waiting years upon years, and their family members are in camps, for example, or in countries where they don’t know the language, where they can’t work, and they do have to wait years and years to … They have to pool their money, they have to jump through a lot of hoops. And you will see this reaction not just, for example, you will see this reaction from immigrants, new immigrants, first generation Canadians who do wait years to bring their family members to Canada, and many of them are just as deserving as Rahaf Alqunun.

Ryan Jespersen:               Raj, you’ve been doing this, working in immigration law for years. Has there been any difference from your perspective or from what you do, how you manage your clients’ cases? How drastic is the difference, if there is one, from the previous federal government to this federal government? Has Canada’s policies on asylum, on immigration, on refugee access to Canada, has it for the most part from your perspective, across your desk, been quite similar? Or was there a drastic difference under the federal conservatives and the now federal liberal government?

Raj Sharma:                        Ryan, I would probably call it a sea change. You had a situation where we denied federal healthcare coverage to refugee claimants; denial of cancer care, denial of insulin, denial of care to children. So I would call it a sea change in terms of many, many aspects of immigration policy between the Harper Decade, that’s what I call it, the Harper Decade and this current government.

Raj Sharma:                        You had a situation where Chris Alexander, for example, flat-footed and tone deaf on Syria, that’s how I’d characterize him, versus again, this government. There are limits, I suppose. At a certain point, it does get into this sort of virtue signaling, and again, I don’t like to see individuals used as political footballs. But no, I would definitely, I would definitely say that it says that a quite stark contrast between the Harper decade, the Harper-Kenney-Alexander Decade and the Justin Trudeau-John McCallum-Ahmed Hussen years.

Ryan Jespersen:              We’re talking to Raj Sharma, a partner at Stewart, Sharma, [inaudible 00:11:02], an immigration lawyer.

[A study] out of the University of Alberta School of Urban and Regional Planning; took a look at the experiences of 84 Syrian adults in Edmonton, Syrian refugees, during their first year in Alberta’s capital city between October of 2016, June 20 of 17, and some surprising findings including many families essentially see themselves abandoned by sponsors for various reasons.

Ryan Jespersen:               … an interesting study led by Professor Sandeep Agrawal out of the University of Alberta School of Urban and Regional Planning, took a look at the experience of 84 Syrian adults, refugees to Canada, in their first year in Edmonton. There were some good news angles. Families that were privately sponsored had great experiences receiving financial aid, access to resources that were way ahead of requirements from the federal government set for private sponsorship relationships, including private English lessons, ways to circumvent long wait lists.

Ryan Jespersen:               But some other families faced the exact opposite circumstance. Some sponsors, due to the state of the economy or other reasons, leaving refugees essentially stranded upon arrival, responsible for finding their own way. Raj, obviously a troubling circumstance; tough to walk a mile in the shoes of these folks that are brand new to Canada. Is this something that you’ve seen either with clients of yours, or you’ve heard anecdotal evidence of? And then how pervasive do you think this is? Are you surprised by the study?

Raj Sharma:                        No, I’m not surprised, Ryan. I think essentially the undertaking of bringing that many tens of thousands of individuals to Canada by, in my opinion, an artificial deadline … Remember, the government, this government committed to doing so by a specific date, and I think there could have been more resources put in place to welcome these individuals.

Ryan Jespersen:               Raj, we’re up against the clock here, so basically I’ve got like a minute left with you. But we understand, I mean you take a look at the German approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, you take a look at the Canadian approach, the American approach, the court of public opinion ruling in every single one of these nations, is there an example that you have seen globally of a nation that’s doing it right in your estimation, based on your experience as an immigration lawyer?

Raj Sharma:                        No, there’s always going to be imperfect solutions. Every country has different challenges. We are not Bangladesh; we’re not neighbors to Myanmar, for example, with the Rohingya crisis. We are not Lebanon or Turkey, so every country has different challenges. I think Canada’s got it mostly right.

Ryan Jespersen:               Yeah, you bet. Raj Sharma [inaudible 00:14:16]. Hey, Raj. Thank you so much for your time today. Have a great week.

Raj Sharma:                        You got it. Thanks.