Nova Scotia

Is seeking refugee status a good option for Saudi students?

A Saudi student living in Canada says he will consider applying for refugee status if an order from his country to leave gets enforced.

'It's a rigorous, lengthy and stressful process,' says immigration lawyer

Constance MacIntosh says she isn't surprised that a Saudi student studying in Canada is considering applying for refugee status. (Steve Berry/CBC)

A Saudi Arabian student living in Canada says he will consider applying for refugee status if an order from his country to leave gets enforced.

He's among 8,300 Saudi post-secondary students in Canada who have been told by the Saudi government to withdraw from their studies and leave. This comes following a foreign policy spat between Ottawa and Riyadh.

The man told the CBC's As it Happens if things don't cool down between the countries before his early September deadline, he will consider applying for refugee status.

The CBC is withholding the student's name and specific location because he says he has spoken out about his government in the past and is worried about the consequences if he returns.

'Not an unreasonable step'

Constance MacIntosh, an associate professor at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law who teaches about immigration, said she thinks applying for refugee status isn't an unreasonable step for the student, and possibly others, to take.

"I'm certain that student and many others want to stay in Canada where they've been working hard to pursue their education for years — and they're suddenly being pulled back on very arbitrary grounds."

In order to obtain refugee status, MacIntosh said the student must prove that it is reasonable to believe his home state will persecute him. She said the history of Saudi Arabian refugee claims in Canada makes it likely an application could be successful.

"There were about 300 claims last year, and the success rate was between about 80 and 90 per cent, which is extremely high," said MacIntosh.

Refugee status risks

But Halifax immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak said despite the odds being in their favour, students who are considering applying for refugee status should take time to educate themselves on potential risks involved with the process.

"If you are here on a study permit, the first thing that happens when you make a refugee claim is you give up that study permit and you also give up your passport."

In exchange for handing over these items, Wozniak said the student would then be given a conditional removal order which would be triggered if the claim was refused — and the applicant would be forced to leave Canada.

She said while waiting for their claims, students can apply for interim student permits, but even that process can take a few weeks to a couple months.

Immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak says applying for refugee status might be a risky option for students. (Sherri Borden-Colley/CBC)

Students who graduate from Canadian universities are generally eligible for post-graduation work permits, and they could potentially be able to apply for permanent residence in time, said Wozniak.

"So there's potentially an easier or less stressful way to do it than to put all of your eggs in the refugee basket."

'It's not sunshine and roses'

Wozniak said the choice is up to the individual, but if they have a study permit issued by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada that is still valid, they would be able to continue studying.

Anybody who has a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of citizenship should make a refugee claim, said Wozniak.

"I would just make sure they're aware of the risks involved in claiming refugee status. It's not sunshine and roses. It's not easy. It's a rigorous, lengthy and stressful process."

Roughly 835 Saudi Arabian students were registered in Nova Scotian universities last winter, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's website. Their government has told them to leave Canada. (CBC)

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Danielle d'Entremont

Reporter/Editor CBC North

Danielle d'Entremont is a reporter and editor for the CBC in Whitehorse.  Most recently she worked reporting in Yellowknife, after working as a national news reader for CBC Toronto. She has also worked for CBC Nova Scotia in her hometown of Halifax. When she isn't chasing stories she is on the search for the best hiking trails around town.  Send her your story ideas to

with files from Elizabeth Chiu