Fleeing Saudi woman arrives in Canada

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled what she alleges is an abusive family, escaping to Bangkok, Thailand where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a Twitter campaign that drew global attention to her case.

Exhausted but smiling, an 18-year-old Saudi runaway who said she feared death if deported back home arrived Saturday in Canada, which had offered her asylum in a case that attracted global attention after she mounted a social media campaign.

Qunun grabbed worldwide attention this week after barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to resist being sent home to her family.

Qunun was stopped on January 5 at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police, who denied her entry and seized her passport.

Alqunun had been on vacation with her family in Kuwait earlier this month when she ran away and took a flight to Bangkok, NPR reports. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi said in a statement on Friday.

Although her asylum case moved fast the final manoeuvres that led to her flight to Canada remain a mystery.

"I want life. I want to be independent", she said.

Rahaf first said she was aiming for Australia where officials had suggested they would give serious consideration to her claim for asylum, which was endorsed as legitimate by the UNHCR on Wednesday.

The diplomatic dispute began when Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted concerns about the news that several social activists had been arrested in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi, a women's rights activist.

Alqunun resisted, saying that she feared for her life, and appealed for asylum.

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Her deployment of social media allowed her to avoid the fate of countless other refugees who are quietly sent back home or languish in Bangkok detention centres.

"She chose Canada. It's her personal decision", he said.

The decision is likely to exacerbate Canada's already poor relations with Saudi Arabia, which a year ago barred the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh after Ottawa criticized Saudi authorities for detaining women's' activists.

Saudi Arabia responded by freezing new trade and investment deals, suspending flights to Canada, reassigning students studying there and expelling Canada's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, while recalling its own. Her father has denied both allegations.

No country, including the US, spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis.

"They will kill me", she said.

"He has 10 children".

Qunun had previously said on Twitter that she wanted to seek refuge in Australia.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was questioned by reporters Friday that "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".

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met on Thursday with senior Thai officials in Bangkok.

  • Sonia Alvarado