By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Anna Mehler Paperny
BANGKOK/TORONTO (Reuters) – An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family saying she feared for her life has been granted asylum in Canada, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday, as Thai officials confirmed the teen was en route to Toronto.
Trudeau said United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had asked Canada to take in Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who grabbed international attention this week after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to resist being sent home to her family, which denies any abuse.
“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, and I can confirm that we have accepted the U.N.‘s request,” he told reporters.
The decision is likely to exacerbate Canada’s already poor relations with Saudi Arabia, which last year barred the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh after Ottawa criticized Saudi authorities for detaining women’s’ activists.
Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday and was initially denied entry, but she soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.
Following a 48-hour stand-off at Bangkok airport, some of it barricaded in a transit lounge hotel room, she was allowed to enter Thailand and was then processed as a refugee by the UNHCR.
The UNHCR welcomed Canada’s decision and also acknowledged Thailand had given Qunun temporary refuge.
“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,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
Qunun has accused her family of abuse, and has refused to meet her father and brother who arrived in Bangkok to try take her back to Saudi Arabia.
“It was her wish to go to Canada,” Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters. “She still refuses to meet with her father and brother, and they are going to be travelling back tonight as well … They are disappointed.”
Her case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.
A Korean Air flight carrying Qunun left Bangkok for Seoul on Friday night at 11:37 p.m. local time (1637 GMT), an airport official told Reuters.
Qunun will board a connecting flight to Toronto from Seoul’s Incheon airport. She is expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday morning.
Trudeau brushed off a question as to whether Canada’s move might make it harder to repair ties with Saudi Arabia.
“Canada has been unequivocal that we will always stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world,” he said.
Amid increasing domestic political pressure, Trudeau said last month that his Liberal government was looking for a way out of a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Riyadh.
Qunun’s flight has emerged at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.
Canada has repeatedly said Khashoggi’s murder was unacceptable and demanded a full explanation.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; additional reporting by Juarawee Kittilipsa in Bangkok, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Julie Gordon in Vancouver and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; editing by William Maclean and Marguerita Choy)