For scores of Saudi students currently living in Canada, claiming asylum may be the only option.
According to reports, at least 20 students are set to file for asylum in the face of ongoing diplomatic feud between the two countries.
Last month, Saudi Arabia drew criticism for cancelling scholarships of nearly 16,000 students studying in Canada after the Canadian foreign ministry criticized the ultraconservative kingdom over its appalling human rights record and called for the immediate release of rights activists detained by the Middle Eastern regime.
In retaliation, Saudi Arabia ordered Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak to leave the kingdom within 24 hours, suspended all new trade and investment deals and cancelled all Saudi airline flights in and out of Toronto.
Then, to widen the rift even further, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau ordered all Saudi students attending Canadian universities, colleges and other schools on government-funded scholarships and grants to leave the country and seek admission elsewhere.
However, since the Aug. 31 deadline for students to leave the country has now passed and many of them are still reportedly present in Canada, seeking asylum might be their best bet.
“They want to keep studying here in Canada. They don't want to lose all their credits and the time that they've been here studying and working, so they're at least looking for a solution,” said Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi activist currently living in Montreal. “They don't want to go back. Some of them are scared of what happened to me, and they think that if they go back they'll be arrested.”
The 27-year-old, who was once a student at Quebec’s McGill University, claimed asylum in 2013 after the Saudi authorities allegedly began targeting for his political activism once he started posting about the human rights issues in the country.
“They had plans, they had dreams and suddenly you're telling them to just go back home,” Abdulaziz continued. “They don't know what to do, they seem lost, it was like a shock.”
The Montreal-based activist is now helping these students to continue living in Canada not only by filing for asylum but also counseling them on how to get in touch with lawyers, complete their studies and apply for work permit.
A lot of these students, some of whom had been living in Canada for nearly a decade, fear persecution at the hands of Saudi authorities if they decide to go home.
Abdulaziz, who was considered a dissident by the kingdom, said a number of students reached out to him when they found out he had gone through a similar situation. However, the activist also warned the Saudi government has arrested his family members and friends over his criticism of the regime.
“The Saudi government was trying to blackmail me and use my brother to stop me from tweeting or talking about the situation between Saudi Arabia and Canada,” he said. “But I didn’t cooperate with them, I didn’t accept that, so they arrested him and also another one of my brothers and a group of my friends.”
It is also important to mention the Saudi government granted some temporary relief to medical residents, saying they could stay in Canada until they are able to work out alternative placements.
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