Saudi teen asylum seeker in Thai hotel heading to Canada, report says

The Saudi teen who has been in Thailand for almost a week – after fleeing alleged abuse by her family – is leaving for Canada Friday night, according to a report.

Canada was one of several countries that have been in talks with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees about accepting Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who was stopped at a Bangkok airport last Saturday by Thai immigration police after being denied her entry, and having her passport seized.

Reuters cited the Thai immigration chief as the source who said Alqunun was going to Canada – which has been in a simmering months-long diplonatic spat with Saudi Arabia. No other details were immediately offered.

After barricading herself in an airport hotel room, the 18-year-old launched a social media campaign via her Twitter account that drew global attention to her case. Her efforts picked up enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of the U.N.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees granted her refugee status on Wednesday. The Thai immigration chief, Surachate Hakparn, had told reporters the U.N. was accelerating the case, though he gave no indication of when the process would be complete.

Alqunun's case has again highlighted the precarious cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Several Saudis girls and women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years, and returned home. Human rights activists say many such cases have gone unreported.

By Friday, Alqunun had closed down her Twitter account. Sophie McNeill, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who got in contact with Alqunun while she was stuck in the airport hotel room – and has kept in touch with her – said Friday in a Twitter posting that Alqunun "is safe and fine."

"She's just been receiving a lot of death threats," McNeill wrote, adding that Alqunun would be back on Twitter after a "short break."

Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wishes to seek refuge in Australia. The foreign minister there, Marise Payne, met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday. She later told reporters Australia was assessing Alqunun's request for resettlement, but there was no specific timeframe.

Meanwhile, the way was cleared for the teen to travel to Canada, according to the Reuters report. If she goes there, her case could add another interesting element to what has been an escalating back-and-forth between Canada and the Saudi government, a spat that has severely strained relations between the two countries.

It all began with a simple tweet last summer, after Amnesty International learned the Saudi government had arrested several female human rights activists. Among those arrested was Samar Badawi, whose family members fled to Canada in 2015 and have since become Canadian citizens.

After the arrests, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, tweeted “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

The next day, Canada’s Foreign Ministry issued a tweet calling on Saudi Arabia to “immediately release” Samar Badawi as well as “all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” The sensitive Saudis quickly responded, calling Canada's statement "an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs" of the kingdom. The Canadian ambassador to Saudi was sent home, and relations have worsened since.

Payne has also worked to raise more attention around another case. She raised Australia's concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain's national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

al-Araibi was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody, after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

Al-Araibi's case is being considered by Thailand's justice system, said Payne.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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