Monday 22 July 2019

Saudi teen who fled family welcomed as 'brave new Canadian' in Toronto

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun’s case grabbed global attention after she mounted a social media campaign for asylum.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

Rob Gillies

An 18-year-old Saudi runaway who said she feared death if deported back home has arrived in Canada arm-in-arm with the country’s foreign minister.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun smiled broadly as she exited an arrival door at Toronto’s airport sporting a Canada hoodie.

Her arrival capped a dramatic week that saw her flee her family while visiting Kuwait 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.

“This a very brave new Canadian,” said Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday that Canada would accept Ms Alqunun as a refugee in a case that has 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 and returned home.

Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.

“She had a very long and tiring journey so she would prefer not to take questions today,” said Ms Freeland.

Ms Alqunun earlier 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 hashtag “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 US, spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis.

On Friday, Mr 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.

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

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun left Thailand for a long flight to Canada (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

“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.

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

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

It was not immediately clear what prompted Ms Alqunun to choose Canada over Australia. Australian media reported that the UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Ms 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 spokesman said.

Ms Alqunun was on stopped 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 onto 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 Wednesday.

PA Media

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