Saudi teen asy­lum seeker ex­pected in Canada

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL -

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

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