'Whatever it takes to not go back': Saudi students fear consequences of defying regime deadline
Students say they were warned not to speak to media, fear being jailed upon their return
Saudi students speaking to CBC News on the condition of anonymity said they defied their government's orders to leave Canada by the end of August because they fear they'll be jailed upon their return.
More than 8,000 Saudi students at Canadian universities had their lives upended in early August when they were told to pack their bags by the end of the month as a result of a diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada. Now, at least 20 Saudi students are applying for asylum in Canada in the hope that they won't be sent back.
One student, a man in his early 20s who is studying at a university in Ontario, said he's still torn between whether he should apply for asylum or try to stay in Canada via other means.
"I will do whatever it takes to stay in Canada, because I truly fear for my life," he said, adding that since he left Saudi Arabia, he's been critical of the government on his Twitter account.
All my future plans will go to hell, I just can't do it - Saudi asylum seeker
"I discovered the meaning of what it's like to be a human being here. I can't just leave."
A second student, a man in his late 20s working toward a master's degree at a Quebec university, said he's chosen to apply for asylum in Canada because he fears that if he returns to Saudi Arabia, he'll be jailed for his social media activism.
"I feel so nervous and so scared, I can't sleep," he said.
He said he's made the decision to stay against his family's wishes.
"I will be harmed or go to jail, just for freedom of speech. All my future plans will go to hell. I just can't do it."
Warned not to speak to journalists
The students' lives were thrown into limbo in early August, when the Saudi government accused Canada of meddling in its internal affairs after Global Affairs Canada called for the "immediate release" of detained Saudi women's rights activists, including Samar Badawi.
The Saudi government has now said that around 1,000 medical trainees can stay until "an alternative assignment can be arranged," but all other students were instructed to leave.
In a tweet posted in early August, the Saudi government warned students not to speak to journalists about their situation.
Both students interviewed said the government has not contacted them since the Aug. 31 deadline passed.
'Very little tolerance for dissent'
Since coming to power in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promised to modernize Saudi Arabia and has introduced reforms, including giving Saudi women the right to drive.
But Farida Deif, Canadian director at Human Rights' Watch, said a number of recent cases demonstrate Saudi Arabia has an "very little tolerance for dissent."
"What we've seen most recently was that there were women's rights activists, for example, that have been sentenced to death for their peaceful activism, so it didn't come as a surprise that these individuals potentially fear for their safety."
In May, several prominent women's rights' activists, including graduate of the University of British Columbia Loujain al-Hathloul, were arrested. Most remain jailed without charges.
Must prove 'well-founded fear of persecution'
In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said anyone making an asylum claim must prove they have a "well-founded fear of persecution, or that, if removed, they would be subjected to a danger of torture, or a risk to life, or of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."
IRCC said that despite the instructions of the Saudi government, students may continue to study in Canada, so long as their student visa remains valid, and they can eventually apply for permanent residency.
But the student studying in Ontario said he's concerned about what will happen to him when his Saudi passport expires, and that without his Saudi-sponsored scholarship, he has no way of paying for tuition in Canada.
"I'm in my prime years, and I'm just sad that [they're] not being spent on me doing what I do best, but spent worrying about my country and what's going to happen to me, and if I'm going to be a fugitive," he said.
"I just worry that I'm not going to see my family for a very, very long time."
In a statement, a spokesperson from Global Affairs said the government is continuing to advocate for students as part of its diplomatic dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabian embassy in Canada did not immediately respond to CBC's request for comment.