Refugee, yes, but in Australia? (Updated)


The saga continues:

A Saudi teenager has claimed she had been granted asylum in Australia after she fled her “abusive” family and was detained in Bangkok.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun captured international attention when she posted on social media and pleaded with fellow passengers to hear her case for asylum. The 18-year-old renounced Islam and said she feared she would be killed for such an action if she was returned to Saudi Arabia.

Ms al-Qunun’s case was referred to Australia by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees who decided she was a genuine refugee.

“They (Australia) accepted me, I am so happy! I will start a new life,” she told The Daily Mail in an interview today.

Ms al-Qunun said she would be departing for her new home “soon” and has been assigned an apartment in an unknown town or city. The Australian Government has not confirmed she has or will be granted asylum.

I have no idea about the facts of al-Qunun’s case, whether she is escaping Saudi Arabia because she is an apostate or because her father took away her smart phone. In some ways, it’s irrelevant because any public display of rebelliousness by a young Saudi woman dishonours her manfolk and as such is likely to end badly for her, should she be returned under the parental control – though clearly renouncing Islam is the worst one can possibly do and carries a death penalty. So she quite likely is a refugee, being someone with genuine and well founded fear of the consequences of returning home, and certainly has been by now recognised by such by the UN authorities.

I’m less comfortable, however, with the circumstances that led us to this point. Al-Qunun was on her way to Australia (on a tourist visa) to claim asylum, when she was almost successfully intercepted by the Saudi consular staff with the intention of packing her back on a flight to Saudi Arabia. As much as I sympathise with her plight, this strikes me as the same sort of a destination shopping as the “boat people” engage in by flying from all around the region to Indonesia and paying for an illegal sea passage to Australia. To me – and to many others – the spirit and the intent of the Refugee Convention means that those escaping persecution should claim asylum in the first, most proximate, place it is safe to do so, rather than travel around the world through numerous “safe” jurisdictions in order to arrive at a place, which can both grant them safety and also happens to be a place they would prefer to live in (for cultural or economic or any other reasons). In any case, forcing one’s way to Australia with the benefit of one’s financial and other resources is jumping to the head of the refugee queue, which is full of people who aren’t fortunate and wealthy enough to fly themselves and often their whole family to Australia or near enough Australia to book further passage. I have little doubt that al-Qunun would rather start her new apostate life in Australia rather than in any number of other countries around the world, including Thailand, but so would millions of other people; needless to say only a small fraction of them can, and in the interests of fairness and equity, the system for selecting those lucky few should be transparent and not subject to abuse or easy circumvention. This is why I can’t comprehend the left’s open door policy for the boat arrivals; the same people who absolutely loath the idea that one’s wealth should determine the access to services (“Education for all, not just the rich” and so on), seemingly have no problem with Australia’s refugee program being gamed by people who can afford to turn up on our doorsteps to the detriment of the poor (both literally and metaphorically) majority. Maybe it’s time that refugees waiting for resettlement in camps from Kenya to Jordan should start holding up banners saying “A chance of resettlement in Australia for all, not just the rich” when Senator Hanson-Young next turns up for a photo-op as part of her million dollar travel spend.

In the meantime, I do wish Rahaf all the best and hope that her new life outside Saudi Arabia will be safe and full of opportunities she would have never had at home (including the opportunity not to believe in Allah without a fear of death), but whether that new life should fairly be in Australia is a different question entirely.

P.S. 12 January 19 And she’s going to Canada after all that.