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Saudi woman fleeing alleged abuse heads for asylum in Canada

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is flying to Toronto via Seoul, officials said.

Rahaf Mohammed barricaded herself in a hotel room at an international airport in Bangkok, Thailand (Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP)
Rahaf Mohammed barricaded herself in a hotel room at an international airport in Bangkok, Thailand (Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP)

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, officials said.

The fast-moving developments capped an eventful week for Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok.

She barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and grabbed global attention by mounting a social media campaign for asylum.

Ms Alqunun is now flying to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau confirmed his country had granted her 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,” Mr Trudeau said.

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Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun in Bangkok, Thailand (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the UN’s refugee agency to accept Ms Alqunun, Mr Surachate said earlier in the day.

“She chose Canada. It’s her personal decision,” he said.

Canada’s ambassador had seen her off at the airport, Mr 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 the language.

She already speaks more than passable English, in addition to Arabic.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed Canada’s decision.

“The quick actions over the past week of the government of Thailand in providing temporary refuge and facilitating refugee status determination by UNHCR, and of the government of Canada in offering emergency resettlement to Ms Alqunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case,” the agency said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Ms Alqunon to choose Canada over Australia.

Australian media reported that UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) had withdrawn its referral for Ms Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.

UNHCR officials were not immediately available for comment.

Australia’s education minister Dan Tehan said on Saturday that Australia had moved quickly to process her case but Canada decided to take her in.

He added that, ultimately, the outcome was a good one. “She’s going to be safe,” he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, cited Ms Alqunun’s “courage and perseverance.”

“This is so much a victory for everyone who cares about respecting and promoting women’s rights, valuing the independence of youth to forge their own way, and demanding governments operate in the light and not darkness,” he said in a statement.

Ms 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 took her plight on to 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 Wednesday.

Ms Alqunun’s father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him.

Mr Surachate said the father — whose name has not been released — denied physically abusing Ms Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight.

He said Ms Alqunun’s father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.

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