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Lessons from the case of the lucky refugee



Rahaf Mohammed is very lucky. Not to be a refugee, but to have been granted residence by Canada so quickly. In my nearly 30 years of working with refugees in various capacities, I have never heard of anyone being granted residence as quickly. The speed of the process is significant, and also the way she conducted her case on social media.

Refugee woman is welcomed by an efficient Canadian immigration official while an Australian official is weighed down by paperwork. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonCanada, like Australia, has a long history of being generous and welcoming for refugees. The Canadian process can be quick, as seen for Mohammed. This speed would be unlikely for someone who has applied for resettlement from Australia.

The process for assessment of refugee cases offshore by Australia is quite technical. There are five types of visas available in Australia — the subclasses 200-204. The most common ones are the 200 — refugee, 202 —special humanitarian and 204 —women at risk category. The subclass 201 is entitled 'in country special humanitarian' and the 203 is 'emergency rescue'. The 201 category is really only for those who worked for the Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan or Iraq such as interpreters. The 203 is extremely rare and I have only ever heard of one case. Only a very small number (maybe less than ten) would be granted in a year.

The forms are long and detailed and the offshore form 842 is 36 pages in length, including five pages of notes and guidance for completion. I am not aware of the comparative Canadian forms, or how long they might be.

The processing times vary considerably. Some cases with UNHCR referral can be done in months, but I am aware of cases where refugees have been waiting three or more years for a decision on their application to Australia. Issues such as type of case, whether the case is seen as a priority or not, maybe gender and other factors can play into this. These and other factors put a lie to the 'waiting patiently in an orderly queue' myth commonly trotted out about refugees arriving onshore and then making a claim. Whereas Canada can issue a refugee visa in an emergency within 24-48 hours if necessary. I am not aware of anything like that in Australia.

Requests for an update from Australian officials on the case or information about what is happening are routinely ignored, or met with Yes Minister style responses that basically say 'The government is still assessing your case.' Not much detail there.

The other very interesting point form this case was how Mohammed effectively conducted her case publicly through social media. My experience is it is better not to conduct a case in a public manner, either through the media or through social media. By all means use whatever 'quiet' lobbying you can, but do not do it publicly. However Mohammed did it differently, and more importantly she was successful.


"Mohammed was lucky — maybe the next refugee who tries this will not be so lucky."


It is common now for Immigration case officers to discuss an applicant's social media posts, what they have liked or shared, and why. I have seen cases refused in part because of negative interpretations of social media posts on Facebook for example.

Also there is a section in the Migration Act (s5J(6)) which states that if someone does something in Australia which could be seen as self-serving or trying to improve their case, then a case officer can ignore it. This is one reason why I think avoiding social media is a good idea for asylum applicants. That provision does not apply for offshore cases, but it is easier to refuse a case from offshore than onshore so it may influence an officer one way or the other. You are unlikely to ever know.

Mohammed's case on the known facts was one of the easier for refugee applicants. This was because of her gender, age and nationality. Discrimination against women and harsh treatment of anyone perceived to have abandoned the state religion of Wahhabi Islam are very well documented. Most cases are not this straightforward, in my experience. On its face, such a case is an easy one to approve.

A country that is prepared to kill one of its own citizens inside a consulate, dispose of the remains and then deny everything is unlikely to be gentle with a young woman who is seen to have challenged social and religious norms so strongly and publicly. The Instagram picture of the glass of red wine on the flight had political significance for the case as well.

Maybe Mohammed's case and strategic use of social media will not be a one-off for refugee cases. While long processing times have long been a point of criticism for those dealing with Australian officials, I think it is unlikely that Australia would expedite a process just because someone was using social media. However a strategic or even tactical use of social media may not be totally out of the question. It all depends on the case, and the individual. As I said, Mohammed was lucky — maybe the next refugee who tries this will not be so lucky.



Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is an immigration and refugee lawyer and part-time lecturer on immigration and refugee law at ACU.

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, refugees, asylum seekers, Rauf Al-Qunun, Saudi Arabia



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Existing comments

I think one of the key factors in the Mohammed case was the direct intervention of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. That speeded up things no end. Another factor, which Ms Mohammed discussed at length once she got to Canada, was her revocation of Islam. This, which was not mentioned in the Australian media, carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. I think there was/is a lot more to the case than the media here reported. They seemed to approach it more from the progressive feminist angle which sometimes sees all Muslims as fellow oppressed. Nothing could be further from the truth as regards the Saudi elite, both political and religious.

Edward Fido | 25 January 2019  

This is what I learnt. I agree it was most educative event. Canada issued the visa because it is a country that makes gestures on this issue. There is an ongoing clash with Saudi Arabia. So inherently a political decision. Policy again based on who is elected, what pictures are taken etc. So a new government comes - new policy. Show the difficulties of seeking asylum. On the borders of Thailand, 100,000 wait. Eight thousand wait in Bangkok. The system of asylum is fraught, confusing, inconsistently applied across nations. What did the 8000 see in this? This was not an issue of Australian policy. Thailand is a sovereign nation. It was resolved primarily by Thailand, as it should have been. Her need was protection. Discussion confused protection, assessment, asylum, rescue. Senator Hansen Young’s call to issue a visa immediately was too quick, playing to emotions, challenging of Thai sovereignty. Too much chest thumping and reaction is often at the expense of influence, collaboration and diplomacy. I saw a circus. That's the learning from this event. Why did Australia’s Women At Risk program, that has brought to Australia over 13,000 refugees like Mohammed, not get any attention or uplift from this incident?

John Kilner | 26 January 2019  

Rahaf Mohammad made strategic use of social media. Even allowing for the negativity that goes with the territory social media is a powerful means of communication. This young woman was in dire need of some compassion and it came her way. Comparing the relative merits of refugee applications can be a fraught exercise. Everyone who flees oppression should be treated with respect and expediency. However, numbers of refugees are very significant and sometimes the person who tries something different prevails. It's not a blueprint for everyone unfortunately.

Pam | 27 January 2019  

There are 52 countries of second asylum. All of them have similar forms. Canada's forms are not that different to the Australian ones. This constant "Australian exceptionalism" argument is helping debate in Australia go nowhere. Yet there's plenty to discuss. Australia, if Labor is elected, will be the major supporter, per capita, of the UNHCR. How do we want them to work in Asia? I understand the multiple levels of complexity in this issue. Things aren't simple. The 8,000 awaiting resettlement in Bangkok might have an argument with Kerry's assertion re: the "waiting patiently in queues." This issue showed more than others something at play in debate. I have long believed that the asylum system is fractured and broken. Makes no sense. There is great need for global cooperation and partnership to fix it. This incident showed how broken the system is. There are young women just as vulnerable already waiting in Bangkok. The debate in Australia portrays people with my view as "anti refugee" or "inhumane." Yet its quite the opposite. There's this emotional reaction that often brings worse outcomes for refugees. Policy that's not sustainable; that changes when new governments are elected. Politics was at the heart of this girls outcome; the politics of this issue is a growing threat to refugees each day.

John Kilner | 27 January 2019  

Pam is right: the fact that Rauf Mohammed was social media savvy was critically important. She had tremendous support on social media, which was probably what got the Thai government not to deport her back to Saudi Arabia. It was obvious that, if she wanted to come to Australia, she would have had a long wait while her application was sifted through the bureaucracy. I'm not sure exactly what the Canadian immigration laws concerning refugees are, but their Prime Minister can certainly expedite matters! Are we serious about expediting entry procedures for genuine refugees like Ms Mohammed? I doubt it.

Edward Fido | 28 January 2019  

Kerry Murphy’s contributions are always well informed and worth reading. So are most of the comments in this case These contributions provide important information for agitation of immigration reform

JLTrew | 02 February 2019  

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