Saudi teen asylum seeker expected in Canada
OTTAWA, Jan 12 (AFP) - The young Saudi woman who fled her family seeking asylum abroad is scheduled to land in Canada on Saturday after successfully harnessing the power of Twitter to stave off deportation from Thailand.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, was already en route to Toronto late Friday when PM Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would take her in.
Trudeau's surprise announcement came after officials had heavily hinted that she was bound for Australia.
“Canada has been unequivocal that we'll stand up for human rights and women's rights around the world,” Trudeau said. “When the UN made a request of us that we grant al-Qunun's asylum, we accepted.” The move is sure to further strain Canada's relations with the kingdom that went sideways last August over Ottawa's rights criticism of Saudi Arabia, prompting Riyadh to expel the Canadian ambassador and sever all trade and investment ties in protest.
Qunun's attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom was embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression. Thai authorities initially threatened to deport her after she arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait last weekend.
But armed with a smartphone and hastily opened Twitter account, she forced a U-turn from Thai immigration police who handed her into the care of the UN's refugee agency as the #SaveRahaf hashtag bounced across the world.
“Ms al-Qunun'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,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.
Qunun alleged that she was abused by her family -- who deny the allegations -- and rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in Saudi Arabia.
On Friday afternoon Qunun posted a cryptic tweet on her profile saying “I have some good news and some bad news” -- shortly afterward, her account was deactivated in response to death threats. But she was back online later, tweeting: “I would like to thank you people for supporting me and saving my life. Truly I have never dreamed of this love and support.” Qunun's swift use of Twitter saw her amass more than tens of thousands of followers within a week, highlighting her plight at a time when Saudi Arabia's human rights record is under heavy scrutiny following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Her deployment of social media allowed her to avoid the fate of countless other refugees who are sent back home or languish in detention centers.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, is pictured in the UNHCR building Bangkok, Thailand, before leaving for the airport, after she was granted asylum in Canada. UNHCR/Handout via Reuters