United Nations refers Saudi teen to Australia for refugee resettlement

Blanche Robertson
January 14, 2019

The woman - in a widely followed social media campaign - had said she had "escaped Kuwait" and her life would have been in danger if Thailand had deported her back to Saudi Arabia.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland introduced the teenager as "a very fearless new Canadian" but said that Ms al-Qunun was exhausted from her ordeal and long journey and would not be making any public statement on Saturday.

Upon arriving at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport Saturday night, Qunun said she was met by a man whom she identified at various times.

She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a social media campaign that drew global attention.

Qunun was initially denied entry to Thailand when she arrived at the Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport on January 5, intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum. She meant to fly on to Australia, but barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok's main airport on Sunday after Thai immigration officials attempted to deport her back to the Middle East. It garnered enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of United Nations officials.

The developments come after the teenager, who will be flying from Bangkok to Seoul before taking a connecting flight to Canada, was given refugee status by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees on Wednesday.

Robertson praised the swift action of Donica Pottie, Canada's ambassador to Thailand, for her early involvement in the case and helping push the Thai government to allow the UNHCR to gain access to Alqunun, which is not something that usually happens in such cases in Thailand. The ultra-conservative kingdom has strict restrictions on women, including a requirement that they must have the permission of male family members to travel.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Thursday she raised her concerns over his continued detention with Thai authorities during a visit to Bangkok this week.

Qunun's case has drawn worldwide attention to the strict rules many Saudi women face and comes at a time when the Gulf country is under increased scrutiny following the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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Australia remains the only country to respond to Qunun's plea for asylum, saying that it would "carefully consider" granting Qunun a humanitarian protection visa, if she applies for one. Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.

If Canada is taking Alqunun, it could further upset Saudi-Canada relations.

Surachate said that police could not confiscate her phone because she was not being detained and said that the Saudi diplomat's remark was "just an opinion" and "nothing to be taken seriously".

Calla said Alqunun has friends in Toronto who she will be meeting up with this weekend.

"You are the spark that would motivate me to be a better person", she said.

Still Tamara Wood, a lecturer in forced migration at the University of New South Wales, said the speed with which her case is being treated appears quick, but "not unprecedented".

"Not sure when she will resume", tweeted Phil Roberston, Asia director of Human Rights Watch and called on Twitter to shut down those accounts.

Experts agree the media focus on al-Qunun's case has put pressure on officials in Thailand - which usually have little sympathy for asylum seekers - to act quickly.

Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

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