Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident activist who secured asylum in Canada in 2014, told Global News that the students’ plans were thrown into chaos after the Saudi government instructed them to leave Canada and return home by Aug. 31.
The order came amid a diplomatic spat set off by the Canadian government’s criticism of the arrest of human rights activists in the conservative kingdom.
“It was like a shock for these students… they didn’t know what to do, so they’re trying to find solutions for their problems,” said Abdulaziz, who is helping the students file for asylum.
Saudi Arabia later said that medical residents could stay in Canada until alternative placements are secured.
However, the students who Abdulaziz is assisting are not medical residents, and so are not eligible to stay in Canada longer. He said they live in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
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Abdulaziz, 27, said some of the students are afraid to return to Saudi Arabia because they fear that their association with him could lead to them being harassed or imprisoned.
The Montreal-based activist says his outspoken social media criticism of the Saudi government has already led to the arrests of family members and friends in Saudi Arabia.
“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.”
Abdulaziz said he is counselling students to think long and hard about whether asylum is the best option for them. He’s urging some of them to find other ways to stay in Canada, such as by graduating and applying for work permits, for example.
While the Saudi government may ask students to return, they can still stay in Canada as long as their student visas are valid in this country. Under Canadian immigration law, students can apply for work permits after they graduate.
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But Abdulaziz said those who face a demonstrable threat in Saudi Arabia would be well-advised to seek asylum in Canada.
“The situation there is like madness. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go back for some of them.”