"This is Rahaf Alqunun, a very brave new Canadian," foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said arm-in-arm with the Saudi woman in Toronto's airport.Alqunun smiled broadly as she exited an airport arrival door sporting a Canada zipper hoodie and a UN high commissioner for refugees hat, capping a dramatic week that saw her flee her family while visiting Kuwait and before flying to Bangkok. From there, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would accept Alqunun as a refugee. Her situation has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, where several 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 similar cases go unreported.Freeland said Alqunun preferred not to take questions on Saturday. "It was a pleasure for me this morning to welcome her to her new home," Freeland said. "She is obviously very tired after a long journey and she preferred to go and get settled. But it was Rahaf's choice to come out and say hello to Canadians. She wanted Canadians to see that she's here, that she's well and that she's very happy to be in her new home." Freeland said Alqunun commented about the cold and she responded that it gets warmer in Canada. Alqunun earlier tweeted two pictures from her plane seat - one with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hashtag "I did it" and the emojis showing plane, hearts and wine glass. Canada's decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country's relations with Saudi Arabia. In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada's foreign ministry tweeted support for women's right activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave. No country, including the US, spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis. Freeland didn't address what Alqunun's case would mean to Saudi relations. "Canada believes very strongly in standing up for human rights throughout the world. We believe very strongly that woman's rights are human rights," Freeland said.
Freeland said the UN refugee agency found that she was in dangerous situation in Thailand and said Canada is glad they were able to act quickly to offer refuge to a person whose life was in danger.Alqunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. The office of the UN high commissioner for Refugees welcomed Canada's decision. "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 Alqunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case," the agency said in a statement. Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the UN's refugee agency to accept Alqunun, Surachate said. "She chose Canada. It's her personal decision," he said.
Australian media reported that UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum."When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases," a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok told The Associated Press in an email reply on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the case publicly. Canada's ambassador had seen her off at the airport, where Alqunun thanked everyone for helping her. She plans to start learning more English, though she already speaks it more than passably. Alqunun was stopped on January 5 at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.
She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room where her social media campaign got enough public and diplomatic support and Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of UN officials, who granted her refugee status on Wednesday.