Canada comes to teen’s rescue
An 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she was abused by her family and feared for her life if deported back home has left Thailand for Canada, which has granted her asylum.
The fast-moving developments yesterday capped an eventful week for Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.
She fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and grabbed global attention by mounting a social media campaign for asylum.
Her case highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.
Alqunun flew to Toronto via Seoul, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that his country had granted Alqunun asylum. ‘‘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 and to stand up for woman’s rights around the world, and I can confirm that we have accepted the UN’s request,’’ Trudeau said.
Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the United Nations’ refugee agency to accept Alqunun, Surachate said. ‘‘She chose Canada. It’s her personal decision.’’
Canada’s ambassador had seen her off at the airport, Surachate said, adding that she looked happy and healthy.
She thanked everyone for helping her, he said, and added that the first thing she would do upon arrival in Canada would be to start learning better English.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed Canada’s decision.
Alqunun was stopped on January 5 at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police, who denied her entry and seized her passport.
She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and called attention to her plight on social media. It got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of UN officials, who granted her refugee status on Thursday.
Alqunun’s father arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday, but his daughter refused to meet him. Surachate said the father denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for fleeing.
He said Alqunun’s father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision. ‘‘He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes.’’
Canada’s decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia.
In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women’s right activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.
‘‘Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights.’’ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau