Saudi finds refuge in Canada

Canada grants asy­lum to Saudi woman who pleaded for help on Twit­ter in Bangkok


OTTAWA — Canada granted asy­lum on Fri­day to the Saudi woman who won the world’s at­ten­tion on so­cial me­dia as she fled an abu­sive fam­ily af­ter es­cap­ing to Thai­land.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced that Canada would ac­cep t18-year-old Ra­haf Mo­hammed Alqu­nun as a refugee, af­ter she was stopped last Sat­ur­day at Bangkok air­port by im­mi­gra­tion po­lice. Po­lice de­nied her en­try and seized her pass­port, while her brother and fa­ther trav­elled to Thai­land to take her back to Saudi Ara­bia.

Trudeau brushed aside sug­ges­tions that the move might com­pli­cate al­ready strained re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia, while the or­ga­ni­za­tion Hu­man Rights Watch praised Canada for act­ing swiftly to pro­vide sanc­tu­ary to a vul­ner­a­ble young woman.

Alqu­nun bar­ri­caded her­self in an air­port ho­tel room and launched a Twit­ter cam­paign that drew global at­ten­tion to her case. Cana­dian diplo­mats in the Thai cap­i­tal were seized with her plight im­me­di­ately, and though Alqu­nun orig­i­nally said she wanted to reach Aus­tralia, it be­came clear in the past week that Canada rep­re­sented her quick­est path to free­dom.

Trudeau an­nounced dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Regina that the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sion for Refugees asked Canada to take Alqu­nun as a refugee, and Canada agreed.

“That is some­thing that we are pleased to do be­cause Canada is a coun­try that un­der­stands how im­por­tant it is to stand up for hu­man rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau said.

Alqu­nun’s case once again shone a spot­light on the state of women’s rights in Saudi Ara­bia. Many Saudi women flee­ing abuse by their fam­i­lies have been caught try­ing to seek asy­lum abroad in re­cent years and re­turned home.

“I’m the girl who ran away to Thai­land. I’m now in real dan­ger be­cause the Saudi Em­bassy is try­ing to force me to re­turn,” said an English trans­la­tion of one of her first post­ings to Twit­ter. Alqu­nun also wrote that she was afraid and that her fam­ily would kill her if she were re­turned home. The Twit­ter hash­tag SaveRa­haf en­sued, and a photo of her be­hind a door bar­ri­caded with a mat­tress was seen around the world.

The Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion is sure to fur­ther strain Canada’s re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia. In Au­gust, Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man ex­pelled Canada’s am­bas­sador and with­drew his own en­voy af­ter For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land used Twit­ter to call for the re­lease of women’s rights ac­tivists who had been ar­rested in Saudi Ara­bia.

The Saudis also sold Cana­dian in­vest­ments and re­called their stu­dents from uni­ver­si­ties in Canada.

Trudeau ap­peared un­fazed by the pos­si­bil­ity of ill ef­fects on Canada’s re­la­tions with the Saudi Ara­bia.

“Canada has been un­equiv­o­cal,” he said. “We will al­ways stand up for hu­man rights and women’s rights around the world. This is part of a long tra­di­tion of Canada en­gag­ing con­struc­tively and pos­i­tively in the world and work­ing with our part­ners, al­lies and with the United Na­tions. And when the United Na­tions made a re­quest of us that we grant Ms. Alqu­nun asy­lum, we ac­cepted.”

Alqu­nun had pre­vi­ously said on Twit­ter that she wished to seek refuge in Aus­tralia.

But Australian Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton told re­porters on Wed­nes­day and that Alqu­nun wouldn’t get any “spe­cial treat­ment” and was no dif­fer­ent from any other sim­i­lar case.

Dut­ton’s com­ments, cou­pled with the ar­rival of Alqu­nun’s fa­ther and brother in Bangkok, height­ened the ur­gency to find a safe haven for her, Phil Robert­son, the deputy di­rec­tor of Hu­man Rights Watch’s Asia di­vi­sion, said in an in­ter­view from Bangkok.

“There was the un­cer­tain as­pect of her fa­ther and her brother — the peo­ple she feared most — still be­ing here, still be­ing in Bangkok and still be­ing present. There was a great deal of worry about that. That some­thing might hap­pen,” said Robert­son. “That was ac­tu­ally one of the rea­sons why the orig­i­nal idea that she might be go­ing to Aus­tralia was switched to go to Canada, be­cause Canada was pre­pared to act much quicker and re­ally make this hap­pen.”

Robert­son praised the swift ac­tion of Don­ica Pot­tie, Canada’s am­bas­sador to Thai­land, for her early in­volve­ment in the case and help­ing push the Thai gov­ern­ment to al­low the UNHCR to gain ac­cess to Alqu­nun, which is not some­thing that usu­ally hap­pens in such cases in Thai­land.

“They were on it from the get-go,” said Robert­son. “She was part of the coali­tion of peo­ple that were push­ing very hard when we thought we were go­ing to lose Ra­haf.”

Pot­tie was not avail­able for com­ment.

UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi wel­comed Canada’s de­ci­sion, given the hard­en­ing of at­ti­tudes in some coun­tries to­wards the plight of refugees.

“Ms. Alqu­nun’s plight has cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion over the past few days, pro­vid­ing a glimpse into the pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion of mil­lions of refugees world­wide,” he said in a state­ment. “Refugee pro­tec­tion to­day is often un­der threat and can­not al­ways be as­sured, but in this in­stance in­ter­na­tional refugee law and over­rid­ing val­ues of hu­man­ity have pre­vailed.”

Ear­lier this week, Trudeau was forced to de­fend Canada’s im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem dur­ing a town hall in Regina, in which one man said that Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity are two cul­tures that don’t “mix.”

“There are many more Ra­hafs out there, and it’s im­por­tant that we not lose that com­pas­sion for other peo­ple just be­cause there are some who want to try to di­vide us, and try to politi­cize dif­fer­ences in ap­pear­ance, or colour of skin or ori­gin,” said Robert­son. “We can’t let the big­ots win.”


Ra­haf Mo­hammed Alqu­nun walks in Bangkok, Thai­land, Fri­day. Alqu­nun, the 18-year old Saudi woman who fled her fam­ily to seek asy­lum, remains in Thai­land un­der the care of the UN refugee agency as she awaits a de­ci­sion by a third coun­try to ac­cept her as a refugee.

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