Saudi teen who barricaded herself in airport hotel granted asylum in Canada

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.

The decision to give haven to the 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed 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.

A loose group of activists and friends bolstered Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveRahaf and were able to successfully stave off deportation.
Sakchai Lalit/AP
A loose group of activists and friends bolstered Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveRahaf and were able to successfully stave off deportation.

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.

READ MORE:
* Thailand is no friend to asylum seekers. So why did it let a Saudi teenager stay?
* UN refers Saudi refugee case to Australia
* Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who says her family want to kill her, emerges from barricaded room in Thai airport
* The hurdles and obstacles Saudi women runaways face

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 UN processed her request.

A copy of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's passport, which she says was removed from her when she landed in Thailand.
Sakchai Lalit/AP
A copy of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's passport, which she says was removed from her when she landed in Thailand.

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.

The UN 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.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's appeal for refugee status has underscored the severe restrictions that women in Saudi Arabia face.
Sakchai Lalit/AP
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun's appeal for refugee status has underscored the severe restrictions that women in Saudi Arabia face.

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, travelled 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.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun walks by Thailand Chief of Immigration Police Major General Surachate Hakparn, right, before leaving Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Monday, 7 January.
Thailand Immigration Bureau/AP
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun walks by Thailand Chief of Immigration Police Major General Surachate Hakparn, right, before leaving Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Monday, 7 January.

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.

The Washington Post