Pathways to residency remain open to Saudi students amid diplomatic rift, Ottawa says

A Saudi student who successfully applied for asylum in Canada in 2014 and now attends Bishop's University in Quebec urges other students to follow that path. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRC) says that may not be necessary, as most should be able to stay.

Saudi student in Quebec who successfully applied for asylum in Canada in 2014 urges others to stay

Omar Abdulaziz, who was granted asylum in Canada in 2014, urged other Saudi students to apply rather than return to Saudi Arabia amid tensions between Ottawa and Riyadh. (CBC)

A Saudi student who successfully applied for asylum in Canada in 2014 and now attends Bishop's University in Quebec urges other students from the Gulf country to follow that path.

However, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRC) says that may not be necessary, as most would be able to apply to the government's Express Entry residency system after finishing their studies.

Saudi students have been ordered by their government to leave Canada by Aug. 31. 

Omar Abdulaziz, 27, is studying in Sherbrooke and was granted asylum in 2014 when his outspoken, political Twitter account —  which garnered a huge following — caught the attention of Saudi authorities.

He said they had demanded he return to the country, but argued his life would be in danger if he returned to Saudi Arabia, so he was granted asylum.

Abdulaziz is one of few Saudi students now in Canada who has spoken out after finding themselves at the centre of the political melee between Ottawa and Riyadh.

The Saudi government accused Canada of meddling in its internal affairs after Global Affairs Canada tweeted for the "immediate release" of detained Saudi women's rights activists on Aug. 3. Riyadh ordered Saudi students in Canada to return to the Saudi Kingdom shortly thereafter.

Abdulaziz said the 8,300 Saudi students enrolled in Canadian universities and colleges should apply for asylum instead of going home.

"Canadian law is very clear; if you feel [like] you are in danger, you cannot go back," Abdulaziz told CBC. 

Asylum or residency?

The IRC says each asylum application is evaluated on its merits.

Applicants 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," spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon told CBC News in an email.

Saudi Arabia's row with Canada is the latest example of the brash foreign policy moves of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, say some analysts. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

Fénelon said that despite what the Saudi government is telling students, from the IRC's perspective, they can continue to study in Canada if their student permits are still valid. Study permit applications are generally issued for the entire length of an applicant's program.

When full-time students graduate, they are typically eligible for work permits through a post-graduation program, she said.

They are then able to transition to permanent residency through the government's Express Entry system. 

"Clearly, former international students are a key source of candidates in Express Entry, given their age, education, skills and experience," Fénelon said.

"They also often have established social networks and have familiarized themselves with life in Canada."

Saudi students appear largely unsure about what to do, however.

Anonymous blogs offering them support have sprung up, and universities are holding information sessions for affected students.

Last week, McGill University reached out to 200 Saudi trainees in the faculty of medicine about the situation.    

"We will continue to provide support to these valued members of our community in any way that we can throughout this difficult period," Dr. Samuel Benaroya, associate vice-principal of McGill's Faculty of Medicine, said in a news release on Friday. 

Student says threats won't deter him

Abdulaziz said the more Saudi students feel empowered to stay in Canada, the more of a threat they pose to the government in Saudi Arabia.

"If a person feels safe in Canada, they would feel safe to criticize the Saudi regime," he said.

Abdulaziz has about 275,000 followers on Twitter and tweets regularly about politics. His online activism began in 2009 when he was a student at McGill University.

He said his family back home has been threatened as a result of his online criticism of the Saudi government, but that won't deter him.

"I do believe I'm trying to help my country. I'm trying to help my people," Abdulaziz said. 

With files from Claude Rivest, CBC Montreal's Daybreak