Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Doug Skeggs

On January 5, 2019, the world woke up to the compelling story of Rahaf Mohammed, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who had barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room in a desperate attempt to escape her home country and seek asylum and freedom in Australia. Rahaf claimed that her family in Saudi Arabia had prevented her from getting an education, locked her up for months, subjected her to physical and psychological abuse, wanted her to enter into a forced marriage, and had threatened to kill her because she no longer follows Islam.

Six days later the Government of Canada came to her rescue and granted her asylum on a fast-track “emergency” basis. Rahaf flew to Toronto January 11 and was greeted at Toronto Pearson International Airport by Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland.

This was at a time when Canada was still struggling to respond to a multi-year influx of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to enter the country through the U.S., creating a serious application backlog and processing challenge.

On January 31, 2019, Canada responded to these challenges with a novel approach to refugee applications — the fast-track Less Complex Claims process. This new approach provides a shorter process for applicants from identified countries escaping known types of persecution.

To implement the Less Complex Claims process, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada created and published a list of countries and claim types “generally considered appropriate” for file review under this fast-track method. The list included countries like Afghanistan, Burundi, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, and Yemen. The claim types, eligible persecutions on the list, were specifically identified by country and included issues such as family violence, violence against women, threat of kidnapping, criminality and corruption, and religious belief.

Atheists Fall Through the Cracks

We believe the Less Complex Claims process is a very positive move by Canada to respond to the cries for help from people whose freedom and lives are in jeopardy in various areas of the world. We also believe Canada should include atheism or non-belief on its list of eligible claims.

In September 2020, Secular Connexion Séculière (SCS), a national organization dedicated to defending the right of freedom from religion, began a process of making that happen.

“We wrote to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, politely pointing out that atheists are persecuted in several parts of the world, and should be considered eligible to apply for asylum under the Less Complex Claims process,” says SCS president Doug Thomas. “Unfortunately we never received a reasoned response.”

With no real response from the Minister, on January 25, 2021, SCS launched a formal request under the government’s online E-Petition process, specifically requesting the addition of atheist persecution under Less Complex Claims.

“This is a very serious human rights issue,” Thomas says. “There are places in the world where non-belief is not only criminal, it is a capital crime, punishable by death. Atheists are subject to state and public persecution. In some cases, people have been brutally murdered for speaking about atheism online. Canada needs to recognize this and respond.”

The E-Petition was sponsored by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP for Beaches—East York, with a 90-day timeline.

The Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFIC) and Humanist Canada (HC) are partnering with SCS on this campaign. Under the E-Petition process, if the petition receives 500 or more signatures it is automatically acknowledged and approved for reading into the record in the House of Commons.

“We hit the 500 signatures very quickly,” says HC board member Sassan Sanei. “Our goal now is to get as many signatures as we can by April 25.”

CFIC has appealed to its membership to join the E-Petition campaign.

“This is an important issue,” says CFIC president Gus Lyn-Piluso. “That’s why we have three prominent national secular organizations coming together in a partnership on this campaign. We strongly believe that by acting together we have a greater opportunity for success.”

If you have not already signed the online E-Petition, please take a few moments to do that, and help us protect non-believers who are extremely vulnerable in their home countries.

We also ask you to encourage others to sign this petition, through social media or your personal networks. Please feel free to share the link to this article and the online E-Petition with anyone who may be interested.