Rahaf Alqunun, left, says she's fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia [Thai immigration police via AP]
Associated Press

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family saying she feared for her life, was due to arrive in Canada on Saturday, after being granted asylum in the North American country.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that Canada had accepted a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to take in Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 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 UN’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 criticised Saudi authorities for detaining female activists.

Alqunun 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 Alqunun temporary refuge.

“Ms. Alqunun’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,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

Alqunun 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 traveling 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 Alqunun left Bangkok for Seoul on Friday night at 11:37pm local time (16:37 GMT), an airport official told Reuters news agency .

Alqunun was expected to board a connecting flight to Toronto from Seoul’s Incheon airport before arriving 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.

Alqunun’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.

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