Saudi teen who fled family granted asylum in Canada

(Far left) Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun in the UNHCR building in Bangkok, and (left) being accompanied by Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn (behind her) and unidentified foreign officials to board a flight departing Suvarnabhumi Airport on Frida
(Above) Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun in the UNHCR building in Bangkok, and being accompanied by Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn (behind her) and unidentified foreign officials to board a flight departing Suvarnabhumi Airport on Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS, EPA-EFE
(Far left) Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun in the UNHCR building in Bangkok, and (left) being accompanied by Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn (behind her) and unidentified foreign officials to board a flight departing Suvarnabhumi Airport on Frida
Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun in the UNHCR building in Bangkok, and (above) being accompanied by Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn (behind her) and unidentified foreign officials to board a flight departing Suvarnabhumi Airport on Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS, EPA-EFE

BANGKOK • Canada has granted asylum to an 18-year-old Saudi runaway who feared death from her family if she were deported home from Thailand.

Thai officials said she had left "smiling and healthy" for a new life.

The woman, Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, boarded a plane to Seoul, South Korea, late Friday evening and from there was scheduled to fly to Toronto, said the Thai immigration chief, Mr Surachate Hakparn, a police general.

He said Canada had given asylum to Ms Qunun, which was confirmed a few hours later by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.

Mr Trudeau told reporters in Regina, Saskatchewan, that the United Nations refugee agency had asked the Canadian government to grant Ms Qunun asylum, "and we have accepted the UN's request".

The events signalled a remarkable reversal in Ms Qunun's fortunes from less than a week ago when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid being sent back.

"She's lively, she's smiling and healthy," Mr Surachate told reporters at a late-night airport news conference. "She said that as soon as she arrives in Canada, one of the first things she wants to do is learn the language. She has determination."

She escaped from her family in Kuwait on Jan 5 and flew to Thailand. After being denied entry into the country, she rallied support on Twitter to avoid being deported, saying she feared her relatives might kill her if she were returned to them.

VALUES HAVE PREVAILED

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 REFUGEE OFFICIAL FILIPPO GRANDI.

SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGN

The 48-hour stand-off at Suvarnabhumi Airport drew global attention through a social media campaign mounted by Ms Qunun from the hotel room, as well as by friends and supporters.

Her original destination had been Australia, where she hoped to join other women who have fled Saudi Arabia, a patriarchal society where male family members can control even the smallest details of a woman's life.

Both Canada and Australia interviewed Ms Qunun as part of the refugee placement process, she said. The final decision on where to send her was up to the UN refugee agency, which granted her refugee status earlier last week.

But Mr Surachate said she preferred Canada over Australia for personal reasons.

"She wishes to go to Canada," he said, "so we respect her wishes." Both Thailand and Canada were commended for their handling of the case by Mr Filippo Grandi, the top refugee official at the UN.

"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," he said in a statement.

 
 

TENSE CANADIAN-SAUDI TIES

Canada's decision is likely to aggravate already tense relations with Saudi Arabia. In August, the kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh, recalled the Saudi ambassador to Ottawa and froze all new trade and investment deals with Canada after Canada's Foreign Ministry posted two Twitter messages calling on Saudi Arabia to release imprisoned rights activists, including two who have family in Canada.

The kingdom also retaliated against Canada with a series of other measures that included suspending flights by Saudia, the national carrier, to Canadian airports, and ordering the transfer of thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada elsewhere.

Ms Qunun's case received unusually quick consideration by the Thai authorities, the UN refugee agency, also known as UNHCR, and Canadian and Australian officials. Many asylum seekers wait years for placement in a country once they are accepted as refugees by the UN agency.

After Thai officials agreed last Monday to let Ms Qunun leave the airport, they were eager to have her case settled quickly so that she could depart for whatever country that agreed to accept her.

Complicating matters, her father and brother arrived in Bangkok last Tuesday. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to travel without a male guardian. The father met immigration and refugee agency officials to make the case that Ms Qunun should be returned to him. He argued that she needed medical treatment and should be under his family's care.

Ms Qunun refused to see them. She said earlier in an interview that her brother had often beaten her, and that her family once locked her in a room for six months because she cut her hair in a way they didn't like. Mr Surachate met the father, whom he declined to name but identified as a provincial governor in Saudi Arabia. He told reporters that Ms Qunun's father had denied abusing her.

"Her father said that his daughter might have felt neglected because he has 10 children," the immigration chief said. "Of course, it's normal that parents worry about their child. But since the daughter asked to be under the care of UNHCR, we have to respect her request."

Ms Qunun's father and brother asked to see her before her departure but she refused to meet them, Mr Surachate said. They also were scheduled to leave on Friday evening.

"This matter, therefore, ends for Thailand," he said. "This issue is not about international relations. This is about a family affair."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 13, 2019, with the headline 'Saudi teen who fled family granted asylum in Canada'. Print Edition | Subscribe