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Canada offers asylum to Saudi woman

January 11, 2019

A Saudi teenager seeking asylum has flown out of Thailand, heading for Canada via South Korea. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa has granted asylum to Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.

Asylum-seeker Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun in Bangkok
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Lalit

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, who barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room last weekend, alleging she had been abused by her Saudi family, boarded a Korean Air flight Friday, bound ultimately for Toronto.

Thailand, which initially had threatened to deport her back to Saudi Arabia, said she was seen off by Canada's ambassador, Donica Pottie.

"Canada has been unequivocal that we'll stand up for human rights and women's rights around the world," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Read more: A turning point for Saudi human rights?

"When the United Nations made a request of us that we grant Miss Alqunun's asylum, we accepted," said Trudeau after Australia too said it was considering sanctuary.

Human Rights Watch said Alqunun had been detained in flight transit at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on 5 January while en route from Kuwait to Australia.

Canada was already far offside with Riyadh over Ottawa's demand for the "immediate release" of jailed rights campaigners, including Samar Badawi, the sister of the jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. His family lives in Quebec. 

Family 'disappointed'

Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters that Alqunun had refused to meet her father and brother, who had flown to Bangkok, adding that they were returning home "disappointed."

"She chose Canada... Canada said it will accept her," he said. "She is safe now and has good physical and mental health. She is happy."

The woman — in a widely followed social media campaign — had said she had "escaped Kuwait" and her life would have been in danger if Thailand had deported her back to Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, Thai officials had allowed her to assume temporary protection of UN officials.

Subservient treatment

The case is the latest in a series highlighting what human rights activists say is the widespread subservient treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.

Several women had been forced to return home in recent years, they say, adding that many similar cases had gone unreported. 

Strict Saudi social rules typically require women to have permission from a male "guardian" to travel.

Further strains

Canada's acceptance of Alqunun is likely to further upset its relations with the Saudi rulers.

In August, Riyadh expelled Canada's ambassador and withdrew its own envoy from Canada after Canada's Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women's rights activists arrested in the kingdom.

The Associated Press reported last October that Saudi Arabia was paying lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts nearly $6 million (€5.2 million) a year following the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, later admitted as murder.

Australia focused on Bahraini refugee

On Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne visited senior Thai officials in Bangkok to also raise concerns about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain's national soccer team, detained in Thailand.

Al-Araibi was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 but arrested on an Interpol notice in November while vacationing in Thailand.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention but sometimes allows the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to take responsibility for "persons of concern," aimed at resettling them in third countries, says Human Rights First.

ipj/sms (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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