This past week it has been reported that prominent human rights activist Noura Aljizawi was flagged as a national security risk by Canada’s immigration officials.
The 35-year-old Aljizawi had participated in international efforts to hold her home country Syria accountable for human rights violations.
Before that, she risked her life fighting for democratic change in her home country. After the unrest in Syria devolved into civil war, Aljizawi was chosen to represent opposition parties in failed negotiations to end the conflict.
But while in the process of making Canada her home, Aljizawi is being flagged as a national security risk.
Why is the story not adding up?
Here’s what we know about the situation.
1) In 2011, Aljizawi was arrested as a student for leading protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Aljizawi fought for women’s rights.
Her political activities coupled with her criticism of the leadership of President Bashar Al-Assad during the Arab Spring (a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s) led to her arrest on March 28, 2012.
While under arrest, Aljizawi was denied access to a lawyer and contact with her family. She was also threatened with harm to her family.
Her laptop, which contained her evidence of graduation, was confiscated and her graduation and attendance records were deleted from university records by the Syrian state.
Aljizawi was held in various prisons and was routinely abused. She was also said to be tortured for up to 12 hours per day with electric shocks.
“I survived detention in Syria many times. I survived psychological torture,” Aljizawi has said in interviews. “I was arrested for many reasons—one of them for documenting the regime’s abuses.”
2) She fled Syria and was able to get to Turkey
After an international campaign led by Reporters without Borders, Aljizawi was released from jail in 2012 and she fled to Turkey.
In 2014, she was elected as the vice president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Aljizawi led negotiation attempts for peace and justice.
She resigned from her role later in 2016, after concluding that negotiations were hopeless.
3) She currently lives in Toronto and works for Citizen Lab which researches how authoritarian states use digital technology to oppress people across the globe
Aljizawi then moved to Canada after she was accepted into the University of Toronto’s scholars-at-risk program back in 2017.
She studied for a Masters in Global Affairs at the Munk School of Global Affairs with a focus on Guinea’s malaria treatment and eradication program.
In February 2018, Aljizawi traveled to Geneva to give evidence to the United Nations Human Rights Council about the situation in Syria.
In 2021 Aljizawi was thanked in the International Journal of Communication for her support with documenting online misinformation.
She is currently working at Citizen Lab—an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, at the University of Toronto.
The lab focuses on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security.
4) Despite her human rights work, the Canadian immigration officials have flagged her as a national security risk
Aljizawi doesn’t know why she has been flagged.
After more than a decade in exile, she was hoping to make Canada her permanent home.
In an interview with CTV National News, Aljizawi, says she’s being psychologically traumatized in Canada.
She says that in Syria she understood what she stood for and who she was fighting against, but in Canada, Aljizawi says she cannot defend herself if immigration officials refuse to disclose why they consider her a potential threat.
“I survived detention in Syria three times. I survived torture and death threats by the Assad regime—but this kind of torture is taking a different toll,” she said. “It’s ruining my life.”
Aljizawi’s supporters worry that she could be detained or even deported back to Syria.
“At this point I can say that [Aljizawi’s] threat is the Canadian government,” says Urooj Mian who works for Sustainable Human Empowerment Associates. “Because their inaction is leading to fear, and it’s leading to her feeling a lack of safety.
After years of living in exile, the initial safety she found in Canada gave her the stability to build her personal life. Aljizawi is now married and has a five-year-old child with much more to lose.
She’s concerned that being labeled a security risk will lead to deportation and forced separation from her husband and daughter.
“When I look at my daughter’s face, I think, ‘I wish I didn’t have you,’” she says. “[She] makes me vulnerable.’”
5) Aljizawi and her husband had no idea why their permanent residency application was taking so long until they received a cryptic email this past January from the Canada Border Services Agency
An agent requested an interview with Aljizawi to clarify some concerns pertaining to Section 34 of the Immigration and Refugee and Protection Act.
“Section 34 relates to national security concerns but it doesn’t tell us what it is,” said Wennie Lee, Aljizawi’s immigration lawyer.
“It could be espionage. It could be subversion of any government. It could be a danger to the security of Canada.”
Lee says Section 34 interviews are usually conducted by CSIS officers instead of border agents.
The address for the interview was a warehouse-like structure near Pearson International Airport that houses detention cells.
Lee requested more information from CBSA so Aljizawi could understand the basis for the concerns and properly defend herself.
Instead, the interview was abruptly canceled and has not been rescheduled.
It is alarming that the status of Aljizawi’s immigration application has disappeared into a “black hole,” says CTV News.
6) Aljizawi’s immigration troubles began when she and her husband applied for permanent residency
The couple decided to apply for express entry since both of them were highly skilled technology workers.
According to the website of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), express entry applications are usually processed within six months. But the couple has been waiting for nearly three years.
The questions about security have her life still hanging in limbo, CTV News Channel (Canada) reported on June 24.
The Canada Border Service Agency says it reviews all relevant factors before taking action.
7) To get answers, Lee is suing in federal court to make the government turn over information about its security concerns or force it to continue processing Aljizawi’s file
The IRCC says it cannot provide information on Aljizawi’s case because of privacy legislation and that it would be inappropriate to comment while the matter is before the court.
In an email, CBSA says no bureaucratic error occurred in Aljizawi’s file and that the agency is reviewing all relevant factors.
“The CBSA has a legal obligation to remove all foreign nationals and permanent residents who are inadmissible under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” said CBSA spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé in an email.
Meanwhile, a network of women human rights activists are mobilizing to protect Aljizawi as she waits for the legal decision.
8) Her testimony is crucial to a case at the International Court of Justice
Canada and the Netherlands want to hold the Syrian regime accountable for atrocities during its civil war.
“I made it very clear to them that I’m risking everything [to get] justice,” emphasizes Aljizawi. “I will fight until the last moment of my life for justice and for accountability—and to protect the others that I left behind.”
9) She is a potential target for violence
“Noura is at risk of assassination. She is a female human rights defender who has had a lot of influence,” says Mian.
Mian says in early June, Canadian and Dutch government lawyers went to the International Court of Justice to prosecute the Assad regime for war crimes and hold it accountable for gross human rights violations.
At the Hague, Canada and the Netherlands called on Syria to stop its alleged campaign of torture against people who opposed Assad during the country’s civil war.
Aljizawi’s testimony about her torture was part of the evidence presented in court.
There are concerns about meddling in Aljizawi’s case by people aligned with the Syrian regime.
“We have to take her case public to protect her.” Mian points out that other high profile activists Syrian activists have been murdered in Turkey and Germany.
10) Mian’s network has sent letters to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Letters have also been sent to the deputy prime minister and the ministers of foreign affairs, public safety and immigration, alerting them to Aljizawi’s vulnerabilities.
The letters have urged them to “protect, not endanger” the human rights defender.