BANGKOK – A Saudi woman who fled her family claiming fear of her life and used social media to amplify her calls for safe haven was granted asylum to Canada on Friday, an official in Thailand said.
In Regina on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that Canada would take in 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who was holed up in Thailand.
Trudeau says the United Nations High Commission on Refugees made a request of Canada that it take Alqunun as a refugee and Canada accepted.
“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, to stand up for women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau told a news conference in Regina.
The decision to give haven to Alqunun capped a nearly week-long drama that highlighted the power of social media to call attention to her case and reverse initial plans by Thai officials to deport her back to Kuwait, where she fled her family while on holiday.
Alqunun’s appeal for refugee status also underscored the severe restrictions that women in Saudi Arabia face. Under the kingdom’s strict guardianship laws, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry or be released from prison. In some cases a male’s consent is also necessary to work.
Alqunun, who was stopped by Thai authorities, had barricaded herself in her room and demanded to meet with representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Using Twitter, Alqunun documented the standoff in real time, garnering tens of thousands of followers. A loose group of activists and friends bolstered her social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveRahaf and were able to successfully stave off deportation. She was admitted to Thailand on Monday while the U.N. processed her request.
The head of Thailand’s immigration bureau, Surachate Hakparn, said Alqunun would leave on a flight that would bring her to Toronto.
“Today Rahaf has been granted refugee status,” he told reporters.
Hakparn said that when she departed, she had a “smiling face.”
The U.N. refugee agency coordinated with Canadian authorities to resettle her there, and she will be in the care of the International Organization for Migration once she arrives, he added.
Several other countries, including Australia, had said they could welcome Alqunun as a refugee.
Alqunun, from Hail in northwestern Saudi Arabia, said she feared she may have been killed if she was forced to return to her family. Her friends said she had suffered abuse at their hands.
Alqunun’s father and brother, who denied any allegations of abuse, traveled to Thailand and attempted to meet her, but Hakparn said as of Friday morning she had refused the meeting.
Alqunun deactivated her Twitter account on Friday. Multiple supporters, including journalist Sophie McNeill who has been in contact with Alqunun during her ordeal, said on Twitter that she was fine but had received death threats.
“Rahaf temporarily suspended her #Twitter account because she has been receiving some very nasty, very real death threats. Not sure when she will resume,” tweeted Phil Roberston, Asia director of Human Rights Watch and called on Twitter to shut down those accounts.
Thailand, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has a mixed history of handling asylum seekers. The country has signed on to international human rights treaties that bar it from deporting people to places where they are at serious risk of harm.
It has served as a popular escape route for defecting North Koreans, who are generally deported to South Korea. However, in 2015 authorities deported around 100 Uighur Muslims back to China, sparking a backlash from human rights groups and the United States.
More recently, Hakeem al-Araibi, 25, a former soccer player from Bahrain who had been granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out against a Bahraini official was detained in late November in Thailand. He was traveling to the Southeast Asian country for his honeymoon when he was stopped.
Marise Payne, the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, said on Thursday she raised her concerns over his continued detention with the Thai authorities during her trip to the country.
“The Thai government is most certainly aware of the importance of this matter to Australia,” Payne told reporters.
With files from The Canadian Press
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