The Saudi teen whose pleas for asylum went viral after she fled from her family and escaped to Thailand earlier this week has been granted asylum in Canada.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Friday that the country had accepted the United Nations request to give asylum to 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.
“We have accepted the UN’s request that we grant her asylum,” Trudeau told reporters. “That is something that we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world.”
A top Thai immigration official said earlier Friday that Alqunun had been granted asylum in Canada, and had boarded a flight for Toronto with a “smiling face.”
Alqunun made international headlines this week after she escaped from her family, who had been vacationing in Kuwait, and boarded a flight to Bangkok, Thailand, on January 5. Alqunun was intercepted at the airport in Thailand, where authorities confiscated her passport and planned to deport her back to her family.
Alqunun resisted, saying that she feared for her life, and appealed for asylum. She has claimed that she faced abuse at home, and feared punishment because she had denounced Islam. (Her family has denied allegations of abuse, according to Thai officials.)
The teenager barricaded herself in her airport hotel room and refused to leave until she could speak with UN officials, who could determine her asylum status. After a nearly 48-hour standoff that Alqunun and her supporters broadcast through social media, the Thai authorities dropped their efforts to deport Alqunun, and the teen was allowed to meet with UN representatives.
Earlier this week, the Australian government confirmed that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had referred Alqunun’s asylum request to the country.
Canada, in the end, welcomed Alqunun and provided emergency resettlement, according to a statement from the UNHCR. The organization noted that Alqunun’s case “was dealt with on a fast-track ‘emergency’ basis in light of the urgency of her situation” — a benefit not afforded the rest of the world’s refugees.
Alqunun did not immediately comment on her asylum status, as her Twitter account — where she published videos and pleas for safety — went temporarily dark. ABC News reporter Sophie McNeill, who had been in contact with Alqunun, said that she was fine but apparently suspended her account after receiving death threats.
But later Friday, a message was sent from Alqunun’s Twitter account thanking “you people for supporting me and saiving my life.”
Alqunun’s plight captured international attention, especially since Saudi Arabia recently faced condemnation for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — an event that put the country’s human rights record under scrutiny.
But Alqunun being granted asylum in Canada adds another twist to her story. Canada has been vocal about challenging human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, so much so that the two countries had a serious diplomatic spat over the summer after the Canadian government criticized and demanded the release of civil society and women’s rights activists detained in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia responded by kicking out the Canadian ambassador, recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada and all Saudi students studying in the country, and suspending flights as well as “all new businesses transactions and investments linked with Canada.”
Alqunun’s case, as high-profile as it is, may end up making Saudi-Canadian relations even more fraught. Trudeau, when asked whether the country’s decision to grant Alqunun asylum would increase tensions, told reporters that “Canada has been unequivocal that we will always stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world.”