Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, right, walks with an unidentified companion in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Alqunun, the 18-year old Saudi woman who fled her family to seek asylum, remains in Thailand under the care of the U.N. refugee agency as she awaits a decision by a third country to accept her as a refugee. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Saudi woman fleeing alleged abuse expected in Canada

January 12, 2019 - 12:01 am

TORONTO (AP) — An 18-year-old Saudi runaway who said she was abused and feared death if deported back home was expected to arrive Saturday in Canada, which has granted her asylum.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would accept Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun as a refugee, capping a dramatic week that saw her flee her family while visiting Kuwait and before flying to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation. The case grabbed global attention after she mounted a social media campaign for asylum.

It highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families were caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.

"Canada has been unequivocal," Trudeau said. "We will always stand up for human rights and women's rights around the world."

Alqunun is flying to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn. Alqunun tweeted two pictures from her plane seat — one with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hastag "I did it" and the emojis showing plane, hearts and wine glass.

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 to the kingdom 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.

No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis.

On Friday, Trudeau avoided answering a question about what the case would mean for relations with the kingdom, but he said Canada is pleased to give her asylum 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.

Canadian officials were reluctant to comment further until she landed safely.

The office of the U.N. 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.

Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the U.N.'s refugee agency to accept Alqunun, Surachate said.

"She chose Canada. It's her personal decision," he said.

It wasn't immediately clear what prompted Alqunon to choose Canada over Australia. Australian media reported that UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.

"When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases," a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok told The Associated Press in an email reply on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Australia's Education Minister Dan Tehan said 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.

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

Alqunun was stopped Jan. 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 onto social media. It got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials, who granted her refugee status Wednesday.

Alqunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. Surachate said the father — whose name has not been released — denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight. 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," Surachate said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, cited 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.

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Associated Press writer Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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