Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET on 2019-01-11
A Saudi teenager who fled her family and gained refugee status in Thailand was on her way to Canada after receiving asylum there, Thailand’s immigration chief said late Friday.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, departed Thailand on a Korean Air flight to Canada via Inchon, South Korea, according to police Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, who saw her off at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. She is expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday morning.
“Today, Ms. Rahaf holds refugee status from the UNHCR, and now the UNHCR coordinated with Canada to accept her and put her on an 11:15 p.m. flight to Toronto,” Surachate said. UNHCR is the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“Then, she will be taken care of by the IOM,” he said, referring to the International Organization for Migration.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that his country had granted al-Qunun asylum, in footage broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC).
“The UNHCR has made a request of Canada that we accept Ms. al-Qunun as a refugee, and we have accepted the U.N.’s request that we grant her asylum. That is something we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, for women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau told reporters.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi offered his support for the teen.
“Ms. al-Qunun’s plight has captured the world’s attention over the past few days, providing a glimpse into the precarious situation of millions of refugees worldwide,” Grandi said, according to Agence France-Presse.
“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.”
UNHCR issued a statement praising Thai and Canadian officials.
“The quick actions over the past week of the government of Thailand in providing temporary refuge and facilitating refugee status determination by UNHCR, and of the government of Canada in offering emergency resettlement to Ms. Alqunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case,” the agency said.
Al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait overnight Saturday to Sunday but said she was intercepted by diplomats from her country who confiscated her passport and booked her on a return flight.
Barricaded in a hotel in the international transit area of the airport, the 18-year-old began calling for help via social media, and pleading to meet with UNHCR officials.
“My family will kill me,” al-Qunun told BenarNews during a brief interview by telephone and text message. “My father is very angry because I ran away from them. I ran away because they treated me badly.”
Amid snowballing media coverage and pressure from human rights activists, Thai officials who initially appeared to be cooperating with their Saudi counterparts relented and allowed her to enter the country in the care of UNHCR, which granted her refugee status, officials said.
She declined to meet with her father and brother who touched down in Thailand on Sunday as the international drama escalated.
“My father just arrived, as I heard, which worried and scared me a lot. And I want to go to another country that I seek asylum in,” al-Qunun tweeted that night.
The pair was set to return to Saudi Arabia, Surachate said.
“Ms. Rahaf still refused to meet with her father and brother and they will be returning (to Saudi Arabia) at 2 a.m. local time,” he said.
“The story ends today and Ms. Rahaf is going to Canada as she wishes. She chose Canada for personal reasons. She told me that the first thing she wants to do when she arrives in Canada is to learn the language,” he said.
“She wants to say thanks to Thai officials and the Thai government and having a smiling face. She is in a good health because she had a health check before leaving.”
‘With courage and perseverance’
International human rights organizations spoke out on her behalf during the airport standoff and throughout her stay in Thailand, saying she could face violence in the conservative kingdom where women’s dress and movements are strictly regulated.
“Rahaf made it with courage and perseverance & with new-found friends around the globe who supported her in a way that really restores one’s faith in humanity. This is so much a victory for everyone who cares about respecting and promoting women’s rights valuing the independence of youth to forge their own way and demanding governments operate in the light & not darkness,” Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a Twitter post.
“Rahaf temporarily suspended her #Twitter account because she has been receiving some very nasty, very real death threats. Not sure when she will resume & think it depends on what @Twitter @Jack does about tracking & shutting down those accounts making these threats!,” Robertson added in another tweet.