Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday that Canada was taking in an 18-year-old Saudi asylum seeker who fled from her family and harnessed the power of Twitter to stave off deportation from Thailand.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was already en route to Toronto late Friday when the prime minister made the surprise announcement, after officials had previously given heavy hints she was bound for Australia.
“Canada has been unequivocal that we’ll stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau said.
“When the United Nations made a request of us that we grant al-Qunun’s asylum, we accepted.”
The move is sure to further strain Canadian relations with the kingdom that went sideways last August over the country’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, prompting Riyadh to expel the Canadian ambassador and sever all trade and investment ties in protest.
Canada also sparked fury in Riyadh by demanding the “immediate release” of jailed rights campaigners, including Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, whose family lives in Quebec.
Al-Qunun’s attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom was embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.
Thai authorities initially threatened to deport her after she arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait last weekend.
But armed with a smartphone and hastily opened Twitter account, she forced a U-turn from Thai immigration police who handed her into the care of the UN’s refugee agency as the #SaveRahaf hashtag bounced across the world.
Al-Qunun alleged that she was abused by her family — who deny the allegations — and also said she had renounced Islam, an offence punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
Rahaf first said she was aiming for Australia where officials had suggested they would give serious consideration to her claim for asylum, which was endorsed as legitimate by the UNHCR on Wednesday.
But late on Friday, Thailand’s immigration police chief said a smiling and cheerful Rahaf was bound for Toronto and had left on a flight after 11:00 pm local time.
“She chose Canada… Canada said it will accept her,” Thai immigration chief, Surachate Hakparn, told reporters at Thailand’s main airport in Bangkok.
“She is safe now and has good physical and mental health. She is happy.”
Rahaf left from the same airport where her quest for asylum began less than a week ago in a swift-moving process that defied most norms.
She refused to see her father who travelled to Thailand and expressed opposition to her resettlement.
Surachate said her father and brother were due to return home on a flight in the early hours of Saturday.
Although her asylum case moved fast the final manoeuvres that led to her flight to Canada remain a mystery.