Canada will grant asylum to Saudi woman fleeing alleged abuse: Trudeau

'We have accepted the UN's request that we grant her asylum,' prime minister says

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year old Saudi woman who fled alleged abuse from her family to seek asylum, is headed to Canada. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

Canada will grant asylum to a Saudi woman who fled alleged abuse from her family and has spent nearly a week barricaded in a Bangkok hotel room, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The prime minister was asked about whether Canada would accept Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, as a refugee during a media availability in Regina on Friday.

"The [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] has made a request of Canada that we accept Ms. al-Qunun as a refugee and we have accepted the UN's request that we grant her asylum," he told reporters.

The young woman's story made international headlines after she was stopped at a Bangkok airport on Saturday by Thai immigration police, denied entry and had her passport seized.

She then barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a social media campaign on Twitter, which drew enough support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of UN officials.

The UNHCR eventually granted her refugee status on Wednesday and several countries, including Canada and Australia, had been in talks with the United Nations refugee agency to accept her.

Thailand's immigration chief told reporters earlier on Friday that she's already on her way to Toronto.

"Canada has granted her asylum," Surachate Hakpark told Reuters. "She'll leave tonight at 11:15 p.m.," which is 11:15 a.m. ET.

The UN agency thanked both governments for their quick response and specifically thanked Canada for accepting al-Qunun and arranging her travel. 

UNHCR Canada
 
@UNHCRCanada

In a matter of hours Rahaf al-Qunun will land in Canada as a resettled refugee.

The Canadian Government and @refugees acted swiftly to provide urgent protection in this case.

UNHCR STATEMENT: https://www.unhcr.ca/news/unhcr-statement-rahaf-al-qunun/?ea.tracking.id=SO19_UNR&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=CA_PS_EN_general_Tweet  

"Refugee protection today is often under threat and cannot always be assured, but in this instance international refugee law and overriding values of humanity have prevailed," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

The statement said the "fast-track" mechanism that allowed for al-Qunun to come to Canada so quickly "is available only to a fraction of the world's 25.4 million refugees, typically those at greatest risk, such as women at risk."

Activists say similar cases go unreported

Al-Qunun's case has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.

When asked if bringing  al-Qunun  to Canada could further inflame tensions with Saudi Arabia, Trudeau would only say Canada is standing up for human rights.

In recent weeks Canada has issued sanctions against 17 Saudis linked to the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and is reviewing its deal to supply light armoured vehicles to the kingdom. Before that, Canada and Saudi Arabia were engaged in a diplomatic spat over a federal government tweet criticizing a Saudi civil rights crackdown, prompting the kingdom to expel Canada's ambassador and ordering their citizens studying in Canada to leave.

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

"This is part of a long tradition of Canada engaging constructively in the world and working with our partners, allies and the United Nations. When the United Nations made a request that we grant Ms. al-Qunun asylum we accepted."

Canada's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak, who was the one expelled this summer during the tweet firestorm, told CBC News that the Saudi government won't be thrilled with this news.

"Some in Saudi Arabia will say it is interference in a family matter," he said. "It is not going to help the Canada-Saudi relationship but it is absolutely the right thing to do."

Sophie McNeill, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who has had exclusive access to al-Qunun, said Friday that al-Qunun shut down her Twitter account, but is "safe and fine."

"She's just been receiving a lot of death threats," McNeill wrote, adding that al-Qunun would be back on Twitter after a "short break."

Al-Qunun had previously said on Twitter that she wished to seek refuge in Australia.

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday. She later told reporters that Australia was assessing Al-Qunun's request for resettlement.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters.

Original Post

Foreign affairs minister welcomes "brave new Canadian" as Saudi teen lands in Toronto

TORONTO — A Saudi teen described as a "brave new Canadian" by an official from the government that granted her refugee status as she fled her allegedly abusive family is en route to her new home, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister said Saturday.

Chrystia Freeland appeared alongside 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun with her arm around the teen as she appeared briefly at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

Alqunun, fresh off a flight from Seoul, South Korea, and sporting a grey "Canada" hoodie and a blue hat emblazened with the logo of the organization that arranged her resttlement, smiled and waved at a group of reporters, but offered no comment on her arrival.

Freeland, however, heaped praise on the young woman who shot to fame through her social media campaign to flee her family.

"It was a pleasure for me this morning to welcome to her new home a very brave new Canadian," Freeland said. "... she wanted Canadians to see that she's here, that she's well, and that she's very, very happy to be in her new home, although she did comment to me about the cold."

"It does get warmer," Freeland said she told her.

She was off to get winter clothes, said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, which is helping her settle in temporary housing and applying for a health card.

Calla said Alqunun has friends in Toronto that she will be meeting up with this weekend.

Alqunun gained international prominence when she fled her family last week while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign outlining allegations of abuse against her relatives.

Alqunun said her father physically abused her and tried to force her into an arranged marriage.

Her father, who arrived in Bangkok not long before she left, has denied those allegations.

"I'm the girl who ran away to Thailand. I'm now in real danger because the Saudi Embassy is trying to force me to return," said an English translation of one of her first posts to Twitter. Alqunun also wrote that she was afraid and that her family would kill her if she were returned home.

The Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf ensued, and a photograph of her behind a door barricaded with a mattress was seen around the world. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that the United Nations High Commissionner for Refugees asked the federal government to allow Alqunun to settle in Canada, and Ottawa agreed.

"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 said.

The UNHCR said Alqunun's plight has captured the world's attention and provided a glimpse into the situation of refugees worldwide.

Spokeswoman Lauren La Rose praised Canada's willingness to step up and assist in this case, but noted that Alqunun's situation highlights a need for more interventions around the world.

"Canada has been a great ally and leader in this area, but there needs to be more spaces so that women and girls or anyone that is vulnerable can find a safe third country to resettle in," La Rose said.

Calla said there may be an increase in asylum seekers using social media as a tool to reach out to governments and agencies to make their case for being granted asylum.

"There are many, many people in desperate situations — desperate in the sense that their lives are in danger. They will do anything to get out of those situations to safety so it may be a tool that some will use," he said.

The move to accept Alqunun could serve to heighten tensions between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

In August, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada's ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after Freeland used Twitter to call for the release of women's rights activists who had been arrested in the country.

The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and recalled their students from universities in Canada.

But Trudeau appeared unfazed by the possibility that the move could have ill effects, repeating that Canada stands up for human rights regardless of diplomatic consequences.

"This is part of a long tradition of Canada engaging constructively and positively in the world and working with our partners, allies and with the United Nations," he said.

At least one observer of middle-east politics predicted minimal fallout from Canada's decision to welcome Alqunun.

Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo and analyst of middle-eastern international affairs, said the relationship with the Saudi government has deteriorated to the point where such actions pose little political risk.

Momani said Saudi Arabia could theoretically pursue stiffer measures such as imposing full sanctions or shutting down the Canadian embassy entirely, but said the existing measures have already achieved virtually the same effect.

Sanctioning Alqunun's resettlement and appearing to stand on principle, moreover, could bolster Trudeau's image domestically at a time when he's under fire from the left and the right on such issues as immigration policy and Indigenous relations, she added.

"There are a lot of gulf countries that you could ... poke in the eye," she said. "This one's already in such an abysmal state of relations that there's no real political or diplomatic harm to do."

Alanna Rizza and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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